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James-philip Harries "none of the above" (france)
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The Gridlock Economy How Too Much Owners
The Gridlock Economy How Too Much Owners
by Michael A Heller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Too many cooks..., 19 Aug. 2013
Heller's basic thesis is interesting, new (to me) and sound. When too many owners own a resource, getting agreement to exploit it becomes more and more difficult. Chapter One gives you the reasoning for this, the rest of the book is basically a series of anecdotes to prove his point, ranging from land division to patent trolls blackmailing potentially life saving drugs or useful innovation in telecoms and other high tech.

It's a "tragedy of the anticommons" just like Hardin's "tragedy of the commons". in Heller's words.
The tragedy of the Commons is actually rare. Most societies manage common resources pretty well. Otherwise, we wouldn't see these tragedies. We see anticommons tragedies (but we don't see them, according to the author) only because they are new and mostly created by government, in particular patents and regulations.

In truth, the problem is as old as Abraham. Societies have invented patch solutions for this for ages. Cousin marriage in Norfolk and Pakistan, primogeniture elsewhere, limited liability companies, condominiums, etc.

Even Apple and Samsung seem to have reached a sort of truce, as I write. We'll see you in court, but we'll do a deal on the steps.

I am therefore more optimistic than the author, who puts the lost benefit from fragmentation at billions if not trillions of dollars. Some change of the laws is necessary, but beware what you wish for.

Fragmentation may also be beneficial. A son or grandson of the ruling class in China (family of the eight "immortals") is at last on trial for corruption. There are benefits as power is dispersed through the generations, not just costs.

Highly recommended, in short. But take some salt along as well.


1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
1812: Napoleon's Fatal March on Moscow
by Adam Zamoyski
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars Tragedy, Russian style, 17 Aug. 2013
I neglected stuff I should have done while reading this book. Beware! The story is so gripping (even if you know how it ends) that it consumes time.

Zamoysky writes it as a Greek tragedy. The hubris (the invasion), the nemesis (winter) and the catharsis (the utter destruction of the French army, getting rid of Bonaparte). Given the literary tradition the author does well to count the statistics and sift the allegations of cannibalism and the horrors of the retreat. (But I recommend the biased review at 3 stars below, if you like statistics.) But why did Napoleon invade? The strategic logic is also Greek. From a minor economic spat, some merchants' distaste for the Continental System (Napoleon's idiotic policy mix of autarchy, mercantilism and protectionism, which the Tsar actually agreed with) a war was declared. With no clear strategic aims, but plenty of brio.

If Napoleon didn't know why he was fighting, the Russians didn't either, until he invaded, occupied Moscow, found it empty, and his army far from home. At last, Russian resistance threw him out. Who did this? According to Zamosky, not Kutuzov, who is here portrayed as pusillanimous compared to Tolstoy's portrayal as a son of the soil. Nor the Cossacks, scavengers. But General Winter. Thus closing the tragic circle between springtime hope and cold defeat.

The author concludes with some long term consequences, which he clearly doesn't believe in himself. Neither do I. I longed for the Russians to put the tyrant out of his misery (Get on with it, Kutuzoz, you fat-arsed poltroon!) but he got home safe and sound. Sadly, he had to be dispatched by Wellington, leading to a problematic engagement with the Continental System which has endured to this day.

Oddly,after all the calculation, no figure is given for how many actually got back to their homes. Maybe Napoleon regarded them all as expendable and they didn't get pensions in those days.

A five star review with only critisism seems odd. I'm trying to warn you that this is a literary book, which is brilliant but,as with all History, painted in the colours of the author. But it's an outstandingly good read.


Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees
by Roger Deakin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Sir, what I did on my holidays, 18 July 2013
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This is a half travel, half botany book. It is an easy read, as such books are. It also contains some obsequious passages to not very good artists and trustafarians which are less easily digested.

Possibly if Deakin had lived longer he would have edited the many repetitious items and had second thoughts about the section on the 'Stans he visits to look at his beloved walnuts. He goes to two of the most oppressive regimes of the 'Stans in search of his walnuts, without realising that a western traveller is, to the locals, a walking money tree. He might also have come to some sort of conclusion about whether there are 141 or 258 varieties, without telling us about ten times about each.

Elsewhere he visits various artists but the descriptions don't really give you much of the sense of the artists, more the sense of a thank-you letter. His prose is easy, sometimes so fluid as nearly poetic, and I did enjoy parts of this book, like you do a half rotten apple. But Oliver Rackham Woodlands and Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape he wasn't.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 28, 2013 12:43 PM GMT


The Norm Chronicles: Stories and numbers about danger
The Norm Chronicles: Stories and numbers about danger
by David Spiegelhalter
Edition: Paperback

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars stand-up statistics, 16 July 2013
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My initial reaction to this book, apparently written by a wannabe stand-up comedian and a professor of statistics, was negative. Normally I like books to be even in tone and concentrated on the matter in hand. In the end I enjoyed it. Some of the jokes are good, and while some of the stats are a bit out of date the writing is clear and the maths isn't hard.

I would also recommend Adams' Risk and Gigerenzer's Reckoning with Risk: Learning to Live with Uncertainty If you're new to the notion of social risks I'd steer well clear of anything about banking risk, with their 3 sigma risk calculations and other BS. A 3 sigma is only supposed to happen once in a million years but seems to come round every decade, so save yourself the complicated math. But Bernstein's Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk is worth a read. Nasseem Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable is tripe.

I liked the contrast between carefree Kelvin (Kevlin?), careworn Prudence, and the human calculating machine in the middle, the Norm of the title. The professor is also wise enough to acknowledge that some risks are just not computable, that a meteor may at this moment be streaking towards earth or a nearby star about to turn supernova and irradiate us all.

Is it a truism - or is it even true? - that we judge others' risk better than our own? Given that our ultra social species evolved in a high risk environment, it might be so. I read about acts of sheer lunacy in the local paper, and watch my children hesitating beside a swimming pool etc, and wonder. But maybe it's because I'm biased to the Kevlin end of the personal risk thermostat. Does anyone know of any literature on this?


Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive
Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive
by Bruce Schneier
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great title, shame about the book, 24 Jun. 2013
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This book, written by a specialist in computer security, discusses the problems of trust in society and comes garlanded with praise by "distinguished" professor of this and "emeritus" professor of that.

The author has read widely in psychology, behavioural economics and the other sexy new research fields. It's hard to see how he could write such a boring book, but he's managed it. With bullet points that go on forever, repetition, clichéd anecdotes, tables that reveal nothing and flow diagrams that obfuscate more than they illuminate, reading this book is like listening to the most tedious sociology lecturer or a third rate management consultant.

I struggled to the end, reluctant to think I'd wasted my money and recognise that I'd learnt nothing new.


Blood Revenge: The Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies (Ethnohistory)
Blood Revenge: The Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies (Ethnohistory)
by Christopher Boehm
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Honour Society, 5 May 2013
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A fascinating book. Originally a PHD thesis, and published in 1984, I doubt if it will top the amazon charts but it will be of interest to anyone interested in ancient cultures.
Montenegro was a "Christian" redoubt against the occupying Turk and never fully succumbed to the invader. It was also riven by feuds, from clan to clan and sometimes from tribe to tribe.
Knowing that you will be expected to avenge a murder, or be murdered in your turn, is not a recipe for a tranquil life. Boehm shows however that this uncertainty, and the surprisingly precise rules that surrounded this revenge culture, actually helped it survive against its external enemies.
Against expectation it is a highly readable account, worthy to stand next to The Honoured Society by Norman Lewis.


An Edible History of Humanity
An Edible History of Humanity
by Tom Standage
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A digestible history of foodstuffs, 7 Feb. 2013
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2 factoids per para, one fact. Just like the Economist magazine. I love factoids. This book has a lot of them, some of them new to me but all about what we eat, not about how we eat.

Standage, a distinguished journalist for the Economist magazine (which even has an "Intelligence" Unit), describes a history of food from a global perspective. He covers the main themes, agriculture, the Columbian exchange, miracle rice and GM crops. He ignores cooking.

Cookery may not be be an invention of man. Cookery may have made man. Cooked food delivers up to 50 times the the useful calories of raw food, and our preference for wasp waists may be a consequence of this.

The author spends some pages on spices, agreed to be nutritionally trivial but historically important, since we went to war over them. He does not mention our preference for rot, such as gamey meat, fish sauces etc which may be an even more ancient preference than cookery.

About technology he has surprisingly little to say. The refrigerator made Argentina rich, the grain elevator made the Mid West viable. About the environment he is conventional but says nothing about the microwave oven which is allegedly destroying family life(but uses little energy), about the practice of cooking food for the husband's midday meal which causes huge traffic jams in India or the deforestation of some poor countries that simply need the means to cook.

This book isn't bad, exactly. It just reads as if it was written by an intern. There are better ones about, some of which I've bothered to review.


Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
by David Graeber
Edition: Paperback

10 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Thank you, money!, 6 Feb. 2013
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I found this book fascinating. Graeber is a leftist anthropologist (self described as a guru of the Occupy Wall Street and other anti-globalisation movements) and has some amusing tales to tell. Take the Tiv, for example. You or I might find paying our social debts by inviting X&Y back for a dinner party or sending a birthday card a bit tiresome. The Tiv spend their lives returning social debts, often over long distances, never with the same yams or millet. Naturally this obsession with social debt has left them dirt poor.

Debt predates money, as anyone who has heard of Sumerian clay tablets will know already. But debt is not the foundation of economics. Scarcity is. Graeber assumes a world of plenty, to be equitably divided. He does not say who should make this decision though I'd hazard a guess that it would be made by a publicly salaried anthropologist working in a lefty university such as Goldsmith's College.

The history of debt from the anthropological perspective throws up some pretty horrible examples, worse than the Tiv culture mentioned above. The reader will naturally be brought to thank God for Goldman Sachs and all the conveniences of modern life by the time that the author engages with economics. Then it all gets a bit shouty. So far as I could follow the mercifully incoherent theme of this book, I'd summarise it as "social debt good, money debt bad". I do not think that comparing "wage slaves" with real slaves can advance the argument. To equate student loans with debt peonage is offensive and does no favours for the students he teaches.

In conclusion Graeber takes issue with two quotes from von Mises and Niall Ferguson. Pretty innocuous descriptions of reality, I thought. But Graeber declares them stupid without bothering to refute them. Then in the next paragraphs admits that when it comes to the problem of debt and money... he hasn't got a clue. "At this point, we can't even say."

The irony is that Western societies have gone about as far as is prudent with Graeber's aims. Which would you rather have? An Individual Voluntary Arrangement or to have your daughters kidnapped?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 30, 2013 3:27 PM BST


Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People
Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People
by Charlie Campbell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Buy it at 10% of the price, 16 Dec. 2012
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This is a lightweight book, a sort of compendium of blame, and not worth the cover price. Quite amusing anecdotes but basically a pretty lazy collection which you could get more of elsewhere. Reasonably amusing if you like half an hour's reading.


Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador
Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador
by Catherine Fletcher
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.95

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Curiously lifeless, 16 Dec. 2012
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Henry VIII's break with Rome was a truly epochal event in a way that Marlborough's victory at Blenheim or Blackburn Rovers winning the FA cup weren't. So a new perspective on the affair is most welcome.

Catherine Fletcher has dug out the correspondence of Henry's ambassador in Rome in the period when he was seeking his divorce from Catherine of Aragon: Henry was only the second generation of his clan on the throne, so needed a male heir, and Catherine had provided but one sickly female. Henry needed results, fast.

But most of the other actors in this history wanted delay. Charles V (Catherine's nephew) had just sacked Rome, the Pope was playing for time (though surely he'd eventually agree to an arrangement?) and ambassadors are notoriously prone to exaggerate difficulties.

The correspondence is copious (we even get to hear about the ambassador's legal tussles about his wife's inheritance) but the author, sadly, can't bring this thing to life. What motivates them? (A period when Henry is himself asking for a delay goes unremarked.) This book is a footnote for the specialist, pretty boring for the armchair historian.


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