Monday, September 30, 2019

Books Read - Q3 2019

In Q3, eight books read - down from 9 in Q2. Previously: see the Q1 books list (16) and the 2018 list which was 113.

  • Tragedy & Challenge: An Inside View of UK Engineering's Decline (4/5) About the decline of manufacturing in the U.K. - see our full review post. The author Tom Brown says that clueless City of London investors with no understanding of technology were always thwarting his high ROI capital investments and his long term plans for building value in manufacturing businesses. Of course: all the managements that we ever see are the opposite. They refuse to explain their plans but they always try to grow their businesses at the cost of destroying value.
  • Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World (3/5) My theory is that Malaysian prime minister Najib put Jho Low in charge of looting a sovereign wealth fund, with the expectation that JL would make legitimate investments that would be politically helpful, give Najib and his wife kickbacks, and take a little for himself - but JL took far more than expected. In fact the fund borrowed multiples of its assets so he looted more than 100% of it. That may be a first. The biggest purchase was a $300 million yacht, followed by big ticket NY and CA real estate, but a lot of it was blown at nightclubs, gambling, and on jewelry and presents for women. When you see people making over the top purchases like these, you have to suspect that they are made with stolen money. The looting was pretty simple - there were no internal controls, so JL just wired the money where he wanted it to go. (See the Fraud Casebook from Q2 reviews.) The big four auditors and investment banks like Goldman did not ask many questions. (Theme from 2018 reviews - no one is looking out for you.) The whole thing was incredibly clumsy and low IQ. Najib could have steered the money towards investments of supporters in Malaysia and generated valuable favors for himself, probably perfectly legally. Jho Low could have done the same. However, they both exhibited total lack of future orientation. Najib's wife acquired "12,000 pieces of jewelry, 567 handbags, and 423 watches" so she is obviously some kind of bizarre hoarder and a liability that he should have cut loose. JL should have managed the fund legitimately - a big opportunity at such a young age. There is a description of a party at a nightclub in New York that sounds like something from Tom Wolfe, with JL being mentioned in the lyrics of a song called "Check My Steezo". (Life imitates Tom Wolfe.) I agree that in the eventual movie about this, Jaime Foxx should play himself. 
  • Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (1/5) This is a muddled book. It is a history of the period from the start of WWI through the beginning of WWII from the perspective of the big four central banks of England, France, Germany, and the U.S. It is also an argument that "mistakes" by these four central bank heads (the "lords of finance") caused the Great Depression. However, it is written by a globalist central bank functionary who lacks a coherent theory of macroeconomics, and so it is ultimately just anti-gold and pro-fiat propaganda. (The author is descended from Nizari Muslim Indians who moved to Kenya; he was educated in England.) When central planning fails, statists argue that we need even more central planning. Note that the WJB silver pro-inflation message lost because of South African gold discoveries (increasing supply and relieving gold deflation) - he was nominated for the Democrat presidential ticket three times but never won.
  • Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel (1/5) Neil Stephenson is the speculative science finction writer best known for early 2000s books Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash. When @dpinsen posted excerpts from Stephenson's latest, they looked good. But I ordered too early - dpinsen later said the ending was bad, and I should have seen all the one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Oh well - I think it is fine to have a bias towards ordering books and taking a look at them as long as you are able to cut losses and stop reading bad books partway through. I am getting better at that. Non-fiction writers can have careers where they churn out 4/5 and 5/5 books, like John McPhee. (He has a stellar batting average.) Fiction writers do not seem to have this ability. (This may have to do with the fact that fiction is autobiographical and people only have one biography, hence only one good story in them at most.) Stephenson lives in Seattle on Lake Washington. It turns out he is (or has become) a tiresome shitlib. He thinks if left to their own devices, rural Americans (in Iowa!) would spray gunfire like opium addled Afghans, and also literally crucify people for minor violations of the Old Testament. He calls it "Ameristan." He thinks the biggest problem with the internet is that it is not sufficiently censored; that people in "Ameristan" are allowed to use social media for "shared hallucinations".
  • The Man Who Planted Trees (5/5) An anti-war book: "In the foothills of the French Alps the narrator meets a shepherd who has quietly taken on the task of planting one hundred acorns a day in an effort to reforest his desolate region. Not even two world wars can keep the shepherd from continuing his solitary work. Gradually, this gentle, persistent man's work comes to fruition: the region is transformed; life and hope return; the world is renewed." George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1914 that "both armies should shoot their officers and go home to gather in their harvests".
  • Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan (3/5) A picture of agrarian life (80% of population agricultural workers) on a densely populated, very mountainous island. People in Edo period Japan "lived simply" - they had to; they were poor by modern standards. Most of the world was very poor until very recently, that is why poverty does not explain crime and especially does not explain senseless violence. You can tell that the Edo Japanese were very short on space, especially arable land, and very short on nitrogen. What makes our world different from theirs? Fossil fuels and synthetic nitrogen have to be at the top of the list. (Liebeg described agriculture's principle objective as "the production of digestible nitrogen".) The Japanese practice of scrubbing intensely prior to entering a shared, hot bath comes from a need to conserve energy intensive hot water. The author Azby Brown is a Japanophile and his book The Genius of Japanese Carpentry looks cool. But he's a hippie who wants us to stop eating beef - he nods approvingly at the sad lack of livestock in Edo Japan. He also mentions their practice of mabiki for population control. Rather than primogeniture to maintain a farm size that could feed one family, farmers killed sons born after the first one!
  • Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (3/5) This is by GMU economist Bryan Caplan, who you may be surprised to learn is staunchly pro-natalist. Like a typical modern economist he denies that there is any Malthusian limit on population - he believes that the quantity of niche spaces for humans increases with the population, unlike any other known life form. The Edo Japanese farmers in the previous book practicing infanticide just needed a Bryan Caplan lecture! (Notice that Gregory Clark sides with Malthusians and physicists on this.) Anyway, Caplan's argument that the reader (who is presumably an educated professional) should have more children is that today's American middle and upper class parents artificially inflate the cost of having children, which of course leads to a suboptimal quantity being demanded. By making some parenting changes the cost can fall and lead to an increased quantity demanded. (He also makes the point that many of the benefits of children come later in life, while at the beginning they have "high start-up costs.") He focuses on behavior that I would call "overparenting," i.e. the way that "moms and dads tag along with their kids as supervisors, or servants." He also makes the point that "families earning six figures have plenty of fat to cut. If you have two kids, a part-time nanny will probably do more for your quality of life than a new car." (Since he's a lolbertarian economist, he also says "a nanny doesn't need fluent English or a driver's license to provide loving care for your children.") A big chunk of the book is a summary of nature over nurture arguments, with the purpose of convincing blank-slatist SWPLs that they can helicopter parent less because their children are genetically destined to strongly resemble them. (He says, "Behavioral genetics offers parents a deal: Show more modesty and get more happiness. You can have a better life and a bigger family if you admit that your kids' future is not in your hands." He even says, "trust not in your parenting but in your genes... pick a spouse who has the traits you want your kids to have"!) Ultimately, I do think that Caplan is right but for the wrong reason. I think that the biggest factor that drives down family sizes is not overparenting but the cost, or apprehension about the cost, of the American education scams: not only overpriced colleges but also secondary schools. Once you have the key insight that "selective" private collages (full of potheads) are a scam, you can save a tremendous amount of money. And as an added bonus, the "selective" college scam has also been driving the excessive extracurricular activity burden.
  • Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors (3/5) Bought this to support @Tweetermeyer and because it looked like a quick read. It reads like a bit of a rush job but it does job telling the Musk story to people who have not been following as closely as we have. (See 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.) Basically Musk is a liar and a crook, and that strategy has worked for him for his whole career, but it is beginning to catch up with him. The early parts of the book are a reminder of how many times he has gone all-in and won: "extraordinary bluffing streak paid off". "This pattern would become a defining characteristic of Tesla's culture: The company would be stuck having to hype ever-bigger new ambitions to raise the money needed to deliver on earlier endeavors that had bogged down in execution." The ever bigger ambitions have become impossible: fully autonomous vehicles (a million robotaxis) or settling Mars. In addition to being dishonest, Musk's ratio of confidence to capability is off the charts. He is the ultimate entrepreneur as miscalibrated optimist. Big problem with the Model 3: "the lower the price of a car, the more the owner is likely to rely on it and thus the more important quality is." The idea that Musk is a physics or engineering genius is wrong - he does things that do not pencil out even on the back of the envelope. For example in 2015, he promised that the "Supercharger" charging stations would be converted to solar power. That just does not work - that amount of energy needs to come from grid power. Why Tesla has to take huge risks releasing self-driving features that aren't ready: "If Tesla were to completely eliminate the risks that killed Josh Brown, Autopilot would be almost impossible to distinguish from any other ADAS system, and Tesla's supposed advantage in autonomous-drive technology (and the billions in market valuation that it brings) would disappear." Also a good point: "The most brilliant design in the world is worth very little if it can't be made efficiently, profitably, and at competitive quality. These 'compromises' [made by other automakers] aren't the products of generic corporate mediocrity, but of survival of the fittest - the car companies that didn't embrace them have all gone out of business." Remember that Musk's plan for the Model 3 factory (the "unstoppable alien dreadnought") made no sense from the beginning. He was bizarrely obsessed with the line speed and volumetric density of the factory and proposed "a factory populated completely by densely packed robots moving so fast that no human could keep up with them." Because he did not actually have what should have been the premise of an electric car company - better battery chemistry - he decided to try to challenge companies like Toyota and Honda at what they have perfected.

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