Books I’ve been reading

The Secret City

The Secret City is a collaboration between Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann, a thriller set in the midst of Canberra. It tells the story of the under-handed dealings as China and the US struggle over Australia, and the ups and downs of players in the Australian political arena.

On one level, the story feels incredibly … threadbare, I suppose. The writing is sparse to the point of being lazy – there’s no effort to evoke a scene, or create a sense of what a character is experiencing, beyond outright telling the reader. This isn’t writing that will stay with you. Instead, it relies on a shorthand – if you’ve visited Canberra you may recognise some of the places that are referenced.

More to the point, if you follow Australian politics, some of the characters may be familiar. This, in part, is where the novel feels deeply disappointing. Rather than an attempt to create new characters, or to give life to the ones they’ve renamed, they’re happy to simply rebadge a few major figures, with different names, genders, and occasionally a different political allegiance, but they’re immediately identifiable, none the less. There’s a power-hungry foreign policy wonk who becomes prime minister, only to be back-stabbed by a deputy with strong union ties, who’s loyally served by a chief of staff with a Greek heritage, who’s come from Treasury. There’s a defence minister who wants to cut spending, and struggles with a controversy over a link to a foreign national.

The saving grace for the series is the mystery plot, which propels the story forward. It tells of the struggles of Australian political actors as they try to chart a course (between? towards? away from?) the US and China, and the choices they make. At times that feels hilariously implausible, and at others terrifyingly real.

This isn’t a piece that will stay with you, but it’s not bad an airplane page-turner.

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition (1995), by Thomas Ferguson, is one of those disappointing things – a poorly written book on an interesting topic. Simply put, Ferguson’s thesis is roughly that political systems are driven by donors rather than voters, and that major political shifts happen not because a tipping point in demographic change, but because economic changes create new coalitions of ‘investors’ (political donors).

Ferguson takes a few steps towards rigorous analysis – he includes some ideas about why it is that voters may be less influential than donors, including different levels of resourcing and coordination. But frustratingly, a few half-baked, tentative ideas are all we get. Ferguson never lays out a comprehensive, well thought through thesis or theory, with a rigorous analysis that makes clear predictions. Instead, we’re left with a few hand-wavey generalizations. That means that at several points, Ferguson seems to contradict himself – first arguing that the media and voter perceptions don’t matter, then going on to use them in his information stories as he talks about particular elections.

Worse yet, the book itself is simply a rebadged set of papers – there’s no clear sense of coherence, and some of the introductory sections in each repeat each other. It’s insulting to buy what you think is a crafted book, and realise the author’s simply thrown things together. As I read back through my notes, I become ever more incensed; there are several points where he writes things like ‘In a longer analysis it would be desirable …’, or says that it’s not possible to examine an issue in the space he has. That may fly in a journal article, but it’s insulting to write what is nominally a book on your ideas, and then tell the reader you couldn’t be bothered thinking them through fully.

One useful concrete suggestion that emerges from his ideas, is that lowering the cost of participation in democracy is a very worthwhile endeavour.

Ferguson’s work doesn’t seem to have spawned any critical academic response, or engagement. While his central idea is an interesting one, I suppose that’s unsurprising for a piece of writing as half baked as this. Not worth it unless you’re doing your PhD in this area.


… I was convinced that modern students of politics resemble adherents of Ptolemy in a Copernican world-and that the now fashionable “rational choice” approaches to analyzing electoral systems produced not rigor but mortis. 

The real market for political parties is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state. 

Newspapers, Politics and English Society: 1695-1855 by Hannah Barker

It’s been a while since I read this one, so my memory is a little fuzzy. It’s a general text, and to some extent the material it works through can feel a little obvious, at a political / theoretical level. But it is fascinating to read about the different issues in the newspaper industry, in a very different context. One thing that I do remember standing out is the extent of partisan polarisation between publications. While I think it’s easy to decry the partisan polarisation of contemporary media, I think that often relies on some abstract, hypothetical scenario where there were papers that were seen by all as neutral arbiters. But in fact, going back quite a long time, newspapers have approached issues from and been aligned with particular viewpoints.

As I look back through my notes, I’m reminded how fascinating parts of this were. If you find politics and history interesting, you may well enjoy this one.


Neither the inability to read nor the high cost of newspapers necessarily prevented the bulk of the population from discovering their contents. Reading aloud – either in private homes or at public meetings – was a common activity, and the shared purchase and hire of newspapers, coupled with their presence in coffee-houses, pubs and shops, as well as in increasing numbers of subscription reading rooms (both genteel and lowly) and circulating libraries, made them accessible to many. 

As has been noted, the lapsing of the Printing Act of 1695 freed the press from considerable legal restraints. According to Schowerer, this was not the result of deliberate planning on the part of the government, but reflected instead its preoccupation with other matters. Downie, on the other hand, maintains that the licensing system ended because of its fundamental inefficiency. 

Parliament’s attempts to protect its privileges [at one point, Parliamentary debates could not be published] in this matter ultimately failed, and produced a legal battle in which recalcitrant printers emerged as popular heroes. 

Between the lapsing of the Printing Act in 1695 and the removal of stamp duty in 1855, English newspapers were transformed from the reading matter of a handful of the political and social elite to the main source of information on current debates and contemporary affairs for the majority of the population … the character of most newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century was self-confident, opinionated, probing and critical in ways which would also have appeared alien to earlier newspaper readers … Most importantly, newspapers helped to articulate, focus and formulate the growing force of public opinion … 




Articles and movies

I feel as though I’ve been slowly catching up on life in the last little while. But I’ve still been watching and reading things at different points. Some quick notes.


There’s been quite a few words put together in the last few weeks about the turn the Trump campaign has taken, in particular the argument that the election is ‘rigged’. This article at Vox by a US academic is a clear and simple explanation of what’s at stake if the rules of the game become suspect.

I haven’t yet read Democracy for Realists, but Matthew Yglesias over at Vox has a good summary. A point I found particularly interesting:

Simply put, for most people, attachments to parties and candidates are more profound and more fundamental than attachments to issue positions. People take cues from high-profile party leaders and bring their opinions in line with what figures they admire think …

Simply put, for most people, attachments to parties and candidates are more profound and more fundamental than attachments to issue positions. People take cues from high-profile party leaders and bring their opinions in line with what figures they admire think … 

And, stunningly, the impact that a set of shark attacks had on the incumbent vote:

Wilson was not, obviously, capable of controlling sharks’ migratory patterns or appetite for human flesh. Nor does it seem especially likely that Jersey Shore residents suddenly became confused about this fact. It’s just that the shark attacks were bad, they led to bad secondary effects, and those effects were especially salient in beach towns. People felt grumpy and panicked, so they voted against the incumbent. Bartels and Achen deploy a range of statistical tests to the election results in New Jersey, and time and again they find that “every indication in the New Jersey election returns is that the horrifying shark attacks during the summer of 1916 reduced Wilson’s vote in the beach communities by about ten percentage points.”

Not directly related to politics, but this piece in the Saturday Paper is a stunning account of the inhumanity of an organisation (a bank) to a suffering family (‘Exposing the inhumanity of banks to their customers‘). It’s the kind of thing that B Traven might have written about, except that in his pieces all the protagonists are always on the very bottom. I can’t tell whether it’s even more stunningly offensive that the amount of grace needed in this story was so small, and so much suffering caused in its denial.


Mascots is a Netflix original, about a group of mascots competing at an international mascot award ceremony. It’s light and fluffy, but for a light and fluffy piece it’s not bad. Worth watching if you don’t want to stretch your brain.

When Harry Met Sally … is a movie that has aged well. I’d never seen the full thing. It tells the story of two people, over time – and asks, what is it that makes a successful relationship?

One thing I really enjoyed was that the movie meets head-on the challenge of telling a love story that has long gaps in the middle, and stretches over years. It handles the challenge well, and you can tell it’s working because it isn’t noticeable.

And of course, it features that delicatessen scene.


The view from nowhere

Huffington Post’s editor’s note has been in place since January, but I’m just spotting it now. It’s an interesting approach, and at least gets the editors past the ‘he said, she said’ problem.

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

Love and Friendship

Love and Friendship is a film based on Lady Susan, an early epistolary novel that it seems Jane Austen completed but never submitted. It’s a lot of fun. Lady Susan is a scheming, hypocritical woman, who manages to ruin marriages and make life difficult for those around her.

As you watch, though, it’s easy to remember that life was hard for a widow without means in Austen’s era. As Lady Susan says to her daughter, for those without means, they’re reliant on the kindness of relatives and friends. So Austen paints Lady Susan as scheming, but it’s easy to imagine someone in that situation who might have had to rely on their wits to survive in a difficult social setting, and without resources.

The film does well telling a reasonably intricate plot, and communicating the different pieces clearly. A shortfall in the narrative is that it’s not always clear what the protagonist is seeking, or who the protagonist even is – Lady Susan dominates the screen, but her only real opposition comes from characters who are at the margins at best. Even when others do succeed in foiling her schemes, it seems they do so only because she acquiesces, rather than through anything they’ve done.

This wasn’t one Austen tried to have published, so it’s hard to know what it might have looked like in final form. Even in rough form, it sparkles. Some of the awkwardness is so brilliant it feels like watching The Office in Elizabethan dress.

Watching and commentary

I don’t watch much sports. Never have. I’ve been to an Aussie rules game, a one-day match, and stayed up all night to see Australia’s painful 1-0 loss to Italy in the 2006 World Cup. But I’ve never really understood the allure of watching professional sports, and always found myself wondering slightly quizzically about those who do.

Recently, though, I’ve started watching a slightly odd thing – I’ve been watching commentary on Total War: Warhammer videos. A quite large amount, although spread over several months.

David Foster Wallace writes about watching Federer as a religious experience; it’s one of the more insightful accounts I’ve read about watching tennis. But watching these videos isn’t quite about that. I’ve read A season with Verona, which is a fascinating account of a team on the cusp of dropping down a league, and worth reading. But even though that’s Tim Parks’ attempt to think about the community and connection involved in being a soccer fan, it’s not that.

I suppose it’s simply that good commentary can give you an appreciation for the complexity in what can otherwise look like an undifferentiated mass, and make it easy to see a story in the chaos. It’s fun, and mindless.