Category Archives: Books

“The Foreign Correspondent”

Alan Furst

This is a typical Alan Furst spy novel, set in Paris just before World War II. A group of antifascist Italian émigrés publish an underground newspaper that’s distributed within Mussolini’s Italy. The main character is a correspondent for Reuters who we first meet in Spain during that country’s civil war. He’s also the editor of the underground newspaper and the lover of the wife a German aristocrat in Hitler’s Berlin. There’s not a lot of action — Furst specializes in setting, atmosphere, and character — until the end but a sense of menace builds throughout the book.

One common element in all Furst’s “Night Soldiers” books, which interlock but aren’t exactly a series in the conventional sense, is the fictional Brasserie Heininger”. It’s based on the real Brasserie Bofinger, which I’d love to visit despite the fact that French restaurants intimidate me.

“Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain”

David Gerard

This is an entertainingly skeptical look at Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It’s the story of naive libertarians basing “currency” (yeah, right) on dodgy software architectures. What could go wrong?

The best way to summarize the book is to quote a couple of paragraphs from the conclusion:

The one constant is: new ideas in finance bring new starry-eyed naïfs, and new predators. New technologies will keep being used as an excuse to put an extra layer of flim-flam over old scams, in an ongoing historical reenactment of the reasons for each and every financial regulation.

Everything to do with cryptocurrencies and blockchains is the domain of fast-talking conmen. If anyone tries to sell you on either, … run.

“Once in Golconda”

John Brooks

This book has three interleaved narratives: a very good account of what Wall Street was like in the years leading up to and immediately after the Crash of 1929, the story of how FDR’s administration imposed regulation on the “gentlemen’s club” New York Stock Exchange, and the story of how Richard Whitney, respected exchange president, ended up in prison for embezzling money.

The story of how Wall Street worked in the early years of the 20th century and what the crash was like from the floor of the exchange was for me the most entertaining part. It was a time when investors formed “pools” and used other mostly legal (then) tricks to manipulate stock prices. You can see these same maneuvers today in the world of cryptocurrency.

Whitney’s story was sadly interesting. It reminded me a lot of the Bernie Madoff story.

A side note: this is the one thousandth post since I started this blog (then called “Reader’s Diary”) back in 2001 .

“The Rage of Fortune”

J. D. Davies

I’ve really enjoyed this series, but this book was a big disappointment. Instead of being a Matthew Quinton story set in the Restoration era, it’s set in Elizabethan times, during the lifetime of Quinton’s grandfather. The attempt to fill in the Quinton family history might have worked but for Davies’ decision to write it from multiple points of view, all his main characters having been polite enough to leave complete dramatic accounts that include direct quotes. Not only are the characters’ voices insufficiently unique, but the rapid jumping from one narrator to another doesn’t help tell what is already the weakest story in the series.

I really hope Davies gets the series back on track with the next Matthew Quinton book.

“The Money Formula”

Paul Wilmott and David Orrell

This is an interesting book on quantitative finance that is accessible to the math-impaired. It would have benefited from more real-world anecdotes. I finished it thinking that this stuff is probably too influential in the world’s markets, that a lot of the algorithms — even if properly implemented – are based on very little evidence, and that the idea that this is “science” is pretty naive.

“For the Love of Money”

Sam Polk

This book surprised me. I was expecting a Wall Street memoir like Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker“, but instead it’s a story of “personal transformation”. I don’t read books like that! However, Polk’s memoir pulled me in. He came from a dysfunctional family, made a lot of money on Wall Street, acted like an all-around jerk, and decided to change into a better person. Granted, a lot of his issues are “first world problems”, but successful people have trouble too.

“Digital Gold”

Nathaniel Popper

“Digital Gold” is a history of Bitcoin from its creation until early 2014. Popper does a good job of covering how the early cryptocurrency movement was based in naive nerd libertarianism (well, that’s my takeaway, anyway), the rise and fall of Mt. Gox, and the hunt for “Dread Pirate Roberts“.

I wouldn’t characterize Popper as a Bitcoin skeptic, but he’s certainly not a Bitcoin cheerleader. I do wonder how anyone could put real money into Bitcoin (except as a speculative gamble) after reading this book.

“The Twentieth Day of January”

Ted Allbeury

Before continuing, read about “The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility“. I’ll wait.

Now, what if somebody in 1980 wrote a solid thriller (albeit with weak characterization) about a businessman who becomes president with Russian help? Well, Ted Allbeury did just that. It should have been called “The Twentieth Day of January, Or, Collusion”.

Cue the Twilight Zone theme while reading these quotes from the novel (“Powell” is the president-elect, “Kleppe” is a Soviet agent, “Dempsy” is Powell’s campaign manager, and “Nolan” should have been named “Mueller”):

“You know this whole thing makes me sick.” He opened his eyes and looked at them both. “The whole bloody nation is excited that they’ve got a new kind of man. Somebody who isn’t a lifetime professional politician. The man who’s going to lead them to the American dream. By now I should be used to it all, but this …” and he waved his hand, disgust on his face “… this is really obscene. I find this more disgusting every time my mind steps back from the details. Those bastards in Moscow planning this abuse.” He wagged a podgy hand at Nolan. “You remember that, Nolan. Even if we can stop it and Powell’s impeached, those bastards have won. The American people won’t ever be able to trust the system any more, not just the politicians but the whole bloody set-up.”

After they had proved that the President-Elect was a reed that bent to Soviet winds, what then? What happened? Every solution spelt disaster. Deep depression for millions of people, a hundred McCarthys, all the words of 1776 made nought, the checks and balances exposed as a dream, and an icy tension between the two most powerful nations in the world. And the final excuse for the buttons to be pressed to turn a grinding ache into a final amputation. It was like working diligently to prove you had cancer. Whatever happened was going to be bad for America.

But there would be others whose attitudes would depend on party politics, and some of them could be part of Kleppe’s network. He had seen the names in the black books from Kleppe’s water tank.

“Did Powell know what was going on?”

Dempsey swung his legs down so that he was sitting up. His hands massaged his face, his fingers rubbing his eyes. He looked up slowly at Nolan. “He was never told in so many words, but he knew all right.”

“He knew the strike was fixed?”

“Yes, but he wasn’t party to the fixing. He wasn’t party to any of it. He just went along, turning a blind eye and reaping the benefits.”

“Since he was elected have you given him specific instructions?”

“Yes.”

“The defence cuts, withdrawing troops from NATO. Those were your instructions?”

“Yes.”

“He knew where they came from?”

“Sure he knew. I told him.”

“Did he protest?”

“Nolan, he was riding a tiger. He daren’t get off or he’d have been eaten. And he knew it.”

“What was the Soviets’ ultimate aim?”

Dempsey shrugged. “God knows. I doubt if Kleppe knows.”

“The Ends of the World”

Peter Brannen

The ridiculously long subtitle of this book describes it well: “Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions”. This is a fascinating overview of the entire history of the earth, focusing on the several times most life was wiped out. Turns out there’s a lot more to extinction than the end of the dinosaurs. (I was struck by something I never knew: the carbon cycle is geologic as well as biologic.)

I liked the author’s approach; he writes both about mass extinctions and the study of mass extinctions, profiling some interesting scientists in the process and visiting some interesting sites. Brannen draws parallels to what might be the next mass extinction, the one caused by human-caused climate change, but he never lets it override his main topic.