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Tuesday, 11 March 2014
This is a relatively brief book that looks at the causes of The First World War. It does not contain any new research and there is not much that is new in it.

The author's thesis is broadly that all of the world powers were preparing for war from the 1900s onwards. The military leaders of all the great powers were building plans for war, and that this lead to an environment in which was inevitable. Meanwhile many working class people were effected by nationalist, patriotism and social Darwinism which acted to encourage the belief that foreigners were an "other" to be feared or defeated.

The principle thesis is that leaders allowed the war to happen, or at least were too weak to stop it. There was little communication at the top and no attempt to defuse the situation, and the author argues this means that the leaders were guilty by omission of starting the war.

A key problem for me is this book feels to much like an essay rather than a book. It is very brief and contains little real insight. It is a nice primer, but I felt a bit disappointed. As we approach the 100 year anniversary there is going to be a lot of information around this period. Two key questions are whether the war was justified and who bears the blame for starting the war. The author clearly argues the leaders of all the Great Powers were responsible. But I don't think there is enough evidence presented to convince me.

I personally preferred The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson, which argues that Britain bears much of the responsibility for war The Forgotten Victory by  Gary Sheffield which lays the blame with German militarism. These books just feel more meaty to me.
Tuesday, 25 February 2014

I Am The Secret Footballer supposedly lift the lid on the life of a premiership footballer. It is anonymous and so is supposed to offer better insight into the world than ghost written autobiographies.

The main character is not someone it is easy to sympathise with as he is a wealthy and rather arrogant figure. He seems to regard himself as on a different intellectual level from other footballers, managers, referees and everyone else connected with football. He is a bit depressive and seems rather ungrateful for the fact his talent has permitted him to earn fantastic wealth, to travel the world and live a life as an idol for many.

The book seems filled with references to birds, booze and money. It all seems a little bit shallow really. I found the book to be a fairly dull read to be honest. You could summarise it by saying footballers are largely drinkers and womanisers who are quite thick, but not as thick as some managers and journalists.

I am not sure there is much in the way of scandal to really make this all that salacious. I don't know it it really needs to be all that secretive. It is not up there with Roy Keane's explosive book from yesteryear. Perhaps part of the fun is trying to figure out who the author is.  Unfortunately a bit of googling reveals he is no-one really famous outside of football.
Sunday, 9 February 2014
Slavery is topical at the moment with the release of 12 Years as a Slave.

 It was not an area I knew much about, and I assumed the end of the civil war marked the end of slavery. This book highlights that far from being an end to slavery the institutions of the Deep South merely changed to allow a white elite to continue their exploitation of blacks. The principle way this was done was to allow states to implement forced labour as a punishment for various crimes. The crimes were minor; vagrancy, etc and the punishments disproportionately were aimed at blacks.

The victis of these crimes were tried in kangeroo courts without much just of getting a fair trial. Once sentenced they were either forced to pay a fine or be submitted to forced labour. Once this had happened they were then rented out to private companies and individuals. If they tried to escape or got sick the cost of dealing with this was added to their term. The slave owners transformed into people who leased slaves from the state. However as the economy moved from cotton picking to mining the conditions actually grew worse over time. There was little to stop the workers being poorly treated.

The system also offered financial incentives to those who arrested blacks or tried them. The result was the legal system acted as a corrupt way of recruiting labour.

In addition there were various "Jim Crow" laws which segregated education and leisure, as well as disinfranchising black voters. These were became more onerous over time, to prevent black people from gaining political power.

This book analyses some of the failures of whites to address the issues of continued slavery. The Federal government was too weak and was unwilling to get involved in the issue. This was due in part to an unwillingness to get involved in states affairs, but also residual racism among the political classes.

The Civil Rights movement is not covered in this book, the book seems to concentrate mostly on the first generation after the Civil War(ie mostly before and around 1900). The book claims it deals with events up until the Second World War, but in practise this deals only with the second half briefly and it might have been better to have a second volume. There is little to explain why the Civil Right movement emerged beyond the fact the Second World War changed attitudes of blacks and whites. In practise I am sure it was more complex.

It is an interesting and horrific study of how people can treat each other in a country that was supposed to be the most advanced in the world and up until relatively recently. I found it hard to put down and I learnt something at the end of it. I think this is a book that deserved to be read.

Monday, 4 November 2013
  King Arthur is a popular source of myth and legend. This book looks to investigate the truth behind the legend. The overall conclusion is not that surprising, that he probably did not exist as there is no contemporary evidence that he did.

I found this conclusion to be fairly unsurprising, Great Britain has no written documents from the era and so the evidence is drawn from myths written hundreds of years latter. The "sources" we have are largely works of fictions that were not written for an audience look for a historic truth, but more a way of reinterupting the past based on their values. The lack of primary sources is a major issues from within Britain is a major issie, as is the lack of any mention from European sources of a Great British King. Moreover there is a lack of monuments or coinage with King Arthur. There is basically a lack of any evidence for a real King Arthur.

I found this book a bit dull as it contained nothing on King Arthur that really surprised me. The tone of the book is very much a rebuttal of arguments for the existence of King Arthur. The problem is that if you arrive at it with an awareness that King Arthur is not real then you probably find the book convincing, but unsurprising.

The book is strongest when it looks at how the Saxon, Jutes and Angles may have arrived in Britain. There were not waves of invaders that pounded the Roman-Celtic peoples back into the sea, but instead it was a more gradual process of migration with the accommodations and alliances forming between those already occupying the land. 

A big problem with this book is the author seems to adopt a slightly aggressive tone. It is also rather academic in tone and so is not an easy read. This would be more forgiveable if there were more interesting insights, but I felt that I did not really learn a great deal from the book.
Tuesday, 15 October 2013
So you want to get rich and become a millionaire? Perhaps this book will tell you how.

The approach taken has been to sample or survey a lot of millionaires and ask them about their lifestyles and wealth levels. The book majors a lot on a frugal lifestyle, and that millionaires are surprisingly hidden from view(and hence may be living next door).

It is filled with anecdotes about how much they spend on items like clothes, holidays, cars, etc the data is all from the USA and seems to be drawn from the 1980s and 1990s. But there is a problem in that the sample may not be unbiased and you have to assume that they are reporting the truth. The millionaires tend to be blue-collar workers who have established their own business that have done rather well. They have generally saved hard and reinvested this money over decades.

The problem is that this might not be the best way forwards for a young potential millionaire. For every millionaire dry-cleaner there are probably  tens of very poor dry-cleaners. Much depends on luck as to when and where a business is established. Careers that require higher education; teachers, accountants, lawyers, doctors may not have so many very high wealth individuals but will have fewer with none. To be fair the book does mention this, but the focus is on very wealthy rather than very comfortable people.

There is something too the idea that controlling spending is a key to wealth. It is always fascinating that many high earners seem to end up bankrupt or poor. It might say something about me that this is a book that I would prefer to read(How to Blow a Million in Five Years!) I guess that it is because they spend up to their income, and this income then disappears.
For me this book felt quite dated with the fairly obvious advise that you need to earn a lot and spend little if you want to be wealthy. It is better than a get rich quick kind of book, it is more of a get rich slowly affair really. As a read it felt quite dull with pages of statistics that didn't translate well into British 2013 prices and a quite US centric feel. Perhaps because in the UK we don't really believe that anyone can rich in quite the same way. The takeaway is that you should look to spend less than you earn makes sense. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013
Jilted Generation is a book that argues that the young people today are a jilted generation. They have three problems compared to their parents
  • House prices have risen and it now takes much longer to be able to save for a deposit
  • Wages have not increase much over the past few years and jobs are less stable
  • University education is no longer free and the costs have moved from comparable to credit card debt(a few hundred or thousand) to mortgage level debt(tens of thousands)
  • Government debts that will need to be repaid
 This book does contain some facts and figures but mostly it is a sort of glorified political pamphlet, albeit a well written one. It reminds me very much of Chav by Owen Wilson, although the Jilted Generation are perhaps more middle class as they aspire to homes and degrees.

The root cause is the most powerful generations are older. They tend to have accumulated more wealth and are more likely to vote and be in positions of power. This leads to a tendency for institutions to encourage outcomes that benefit the older generations. For example pensions rise whilst working age benefits and university support are cut as pensions are a powerful lobby. Likewise high house prices benefit older home owners as the expense of less powerful younger, renters.

There is undoubtedly truth in all of this, although I suspect that every generation has had its challenges(fighting the world wars was probably no picnic). The previous generation had less chance of going to university - it may have been cheaper but fewer people went for example. Government debt has risen but the cost of servicing the debt payments has fallen as interest rates have collapsed(much has been inflated away).  And whilst jobs are less stable people have more choice in terms of careers options than their parents faced.

I enjoyed this book as it is well-written with great style. The actual economic analysis is not so strong, and the authors fail to really address how they would deal with the problems they raise. They are probably aiming at shifting the terms of political debate so inter-generation rights are considered.

There is a similiar book by David Willett's called The Pinch, which looks at Baby Boomers and how they have advantages over their children's generation. David Willetts is a conservative rather than a radical and so it is a more right wing critique of the same problem, the relationship between generations. I think the two books can probably be read together.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013
Particle at the end of the Universe aims to explain the Higgs Boson and how it has been discovered.

I have read this book once, but feel that it is a book that requires more than one reading. It is not an easy book, although it is also an introductory book and does explain all concepts. There is no requirement to have a degree in science, or even much understanding of mathematics.

I think the problem is that the world of particle physics is complex and confusing. It is very different from our normal view of the world and it seems harder to rely on the sort of analogies that are common in cosmology. A Big Bang seems easier to visualise than virtual particles.

The book details the sheer difficulty in particle physics, and that several decades passed between the Higg Boson being postulated(by lots of people not just Higgs) and discovery. Billions of euros and vast amount of data have had to be gathered. The author leaves it up to the reader to determine if this is a good use of resources, and indeed argues it is a pure search for truth rather than relying on the usual arguments for spin off benefits.

I did take away some things from this book. It offers an introduction to the Standard Model of particle physics. The standard model looks like:-

The photons make the electormagnetic force. The Z and W Bosons are the weak force and Gluons are the strong force. Not shown is a graviton which is responsible for gravity.

Quarks make up the nucleus of atoms. Leptons are not subject to the strong force and are most important in electrons which give atoms their chemical properties.

The Higgs Boson is important because it explains why some of the particles have mass. It seems this is not the source of mass in the universe, as this is caused by other interactions within atoms(as energy is mass and the energy of particles reacting leads to mass). The other role is breaking symmetry, but I must confess on first reading of this book I do not really understand this.

I liked this book a lot, it is readable and has advanced my understanding of a complex area. I am left wondering if there are other introductory books on particle physics that might allow me to approach it from another angle and so develop a further understanding. Or perhaps Brian Cox will do a television series.
Monday, 29 July 2013
This book looks at time; why time seems to flow in one direction? Why can we not remember the future?

This is a more complex puzzle than it appears as the laws of physics are all reversable, they all work if you run them backwards - provided you make certain other changes. For example you could reverse time with the earth rotating around the sun, but you would need to also reverse the direction and angular momentum.

The author explains how the tendency of entropy to increase differentiates the future from the past. The future is more "chaotic". He does this by explaining statistical mechanics in a reality easy to explain way.

After this he asks why the Big Bang, the start of the universe, was such an ordered state and how we found ourselves to be here. The short answer is nobody knows so there is much speculation and he dips into quantum physics, black holes, whether we could build a time machine and multiple universes. The book becomes more speculative as it goes on.

The author ends with a model that involves our universe being a sort of bubble universe that broke away, it emerged as a flux in a larger empty space with just periodic fluctations(something called a De Sitter space which is basically empty space with just virtual particles popping in and out of existence). I read a similiar theory in Roger Penroses Cycles of Time, but I found that book far harder to read.

This is a good book, especially the first half. The author avoids the use of mathematics to describe his theories and so is forced to use analogies in the Stephen Hawkins style. I am sure this means leaving out some of the depth as analogies are rarely perfect. But most of us lack the ability to perform the mathematics, so this is probably a wise step especially when it comes to book sales. I found the second half grew a little more speculative, but it is a book I have read on more than one occasion. It seems a bit more advanced than other books that endless recount twin astronauts travelling at different speeds. And the range of material is quite vast. 

Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Stocks for the Long Run is Jeremy Siegel's analysis of the USA's stock market. His thesis is that the stock market is the best place to park your money if you are investing over the long term.

The book argues that the stock market is efficient, meaning it is not easy(or possible) for an investor to pick the right individual shares or to move in and out of the market. The normal investor is best simply buying and holding, or investing in low cost index funds.

The evidence is largely based on the US stock market. Adopting the Japanese, Russian, Chinese or German stock exchanges would have lead to a less rosy outcome for shares. Most of the data is based on the 20th century which was a happy time for the USA.

The author tackles some of the simple market strategies and shows that in general these things may work for a while(Sell in May and go away) the effects do not persist. He also looks at the workings of options markets. The key message hammered in and over is to buy some shares and hold them.

The key take away is that stocks have been the best investment for the past couple of centuries if you are investing over a 40-year timescale. The problem is this may not continue into the future and not everyone can invest over such a long timescale. Many people buy lower risk assets such as bonds because they have shorter investment horizons or are psychologically unable to cope with stock market fluctuations.

Overall this is a good book with an optimistic message. The data sample is a bit limited, and it could be read with other more pessimistic books(Moneywithapin for example). The messages are not exactly dissimiliar, but they look at it from a different perspective. Moneywithapin sees lower returns, but these are driven by mistake investors make(trade too much and paying fees that are too high). Siegel's data assumes no costs and that individuals are not trading too much. Both individuals recommend costs are held very low and recommend low cost trackers.

This is an enjoyable and well written book, but I can't help but feel the author has selected data to suit his hypothesis. And it has often been misinterrupted to suggest stocks must always go up or that stocks are less risky the longer they are held - both are false. Despite these reservations this book is a modern classic.

Monday, 22 July 2013
For a long time I was a fan of paperbooks. I always liked the idea of ebook readers, but I always felt it was a bit unfair that the books cost as much as tradition paperback books. The earlier version of the Kindle always looked a bit clunky. It almost looked like something transplanted from the 1980s into 21st century. It was also a lot more expensive than the new models. It was released as recently as 2007, which I find a little surprising as it is quite an obvious idea.

I must admit I am now converted and am the proud owner of the Kindle Paperwhite, 6" High Resolution Display with Built-in Light, Wi-Fi. It is still not quite as stylish as the lastest mobile phone or Apple gadget. The size of the boarder is slightly large compared to the screen, but it does look pretty slick and although it is bigger than a mobile phone it fits nicely in one hand.

The benefits are :
  • It is lighter and easier to carry around than a book.
  • You can obvious carry hundreds of books with you. 
  • You can start to thin out your huge bookcases(we have more books than bookshelves)
  • The battery hardly ever seems to need charging. 
  • The best factor is the screen is easy on the eyes, really easy. You can read books on a tablet, but the Kindle is much nicer. 
  • You can easily sync it with Amazon's huge ebook library.
It is basically the iPod of ebook readers. There are other e-readers out there, but they are not really any cheaper and ultimately amazon has the biggest selection of books so there is no real need to go elsewhere.
I guess there are a few negatives:
  • The backlight used is a bit uneven. It is sort of blotchy, this does not really affect readability but it does look slightly odd.
  • I don't find the store that easy to use. I tend to end up buying books on my mobile phone and then reading them on the kindle.  I think it is because the Kindle's built in store does not have recommendations. But also the summary does not show prices.
  • Finally it is annoying that eBooks are not cheaper than paperbooks. This is not unique to Amazon, and it is partly because the UK Government charge VAT on eBooks but not physical books.

I have no idea how long the Kindles will be around. They remind me a bit of the iPod, when it first came out I carried it around with me. But improvements in the technology of phones have rendered them almost obsolete. I am sure the same fate awaits Kindles, but at the moment they have an edge over tablets - most due to readability. They are also more robust.

Thanks to www.kneadwhine.co.uk for buying one for me.