Books I’ve been reading

Life has felt … busy, lately. I went on holiday, and had time to read (quite a few books, actually; it was lovely) – but not to sit down and jot down a few thoughts about them. So, it’s been a while since I read some of these, so my recollections may be a little rusty.

Make something up

Chuck Palahniuk is a brilliant author. Make something up is a set of short stories that’s as unhinged as anything else he’s written, but starkly, ravingly beautiful. Trust Palahniuk to take a world that’s given us goatse and find something touching in the midst of it. Or to tell a story about teenage boys and their desire to game the system that stays with you for days.

If you like Palahniuk (and I know that’s an if), then this is well worth it.

The Library at Mt Char

Scott Hawkins is a first time author, but The Library at Mt Char is a cracker. It’s the story of … how to even begin describing it? Imagine if you were reading Olympian myths, except Zeus had decided that he wanted to live for a few years in a nondescript house in the Midwest. That’ll get you part of the way there.

Hawkins manages to juggle suspense about what happens next, along with mystery about what is actually going on. In the end, it comes together in a way that feels surprisingly satisfying. Granted, there’s a passage in the middle with a lot of dogs that felt as though it dragged; but overall, worth a read if you’re looking for good fiction.

Down and out in the Magic Kingdom

Cory Doctorow is a great writer, but this didn’t feel like his best work. He does a much better job of trying to write a story set in a post-scarcity society than some attempts, but ultimately he still needs conflict, and hence scarcity, to drive his narrative.

… we’ve put our hearts and souls into this place, and it’s not right to take it from us. Can’t we have one constant corner of the world, one bit frozen in time for the people who love it that way? Why does your success mean our failure?

 

 

At the movies

I’ve been to the movies a few times recently. Some quick notes:

Max and Leon

I’m not linking to anything, because this film is awful; both artistically, and offensively. I can’t express how strongly I recommend not seeing this film.

Kung Fu Hustle

This movie was … a mild disappointment. It might be funnier if you’re very into Kung Fu. It’s trying, but it’s not succeeding.

Kill Bill II

I watched Kill Bill a while ago; so it was nice to see the second instalment. It’s as beautiful and as touching as the first. And I think it’s a testament to Tarantino’s gifts that it only becomes clear in the final scenes that in fact the whole thing has been a love story all along. And he makes it all feel natural and simple. Worth it.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey is the story of the love between a father and a son. It’s also, tangentially, the story of Jacques-Yves Costeau, famed sea explorer. He starts as a pilot who can no longer fly; his sense of adventure and drama takes him to the sea, then the screen. Along the way he womanises, misses his father’s funeral, and alienates his family.

What redeems him? Not much, really. He reaches out to his son, a little; and when his son responds, he makes the choice to respond to his son’s concerns, and campaign over the environment. It’s not much of a plot, but it’s enough to hang beautiful scenes on.

Not terrible, but don’t be too bothered if you miss it.

Empires of Eve

Empires of Eve is fascinating, at one level. It’s a history of an online universe, told in exhaustive detail. The problem is that it focuses purely on narrative – first one thing happens, then another. There is no sense of the mechanics of how the world works – no analysis of what the underlying causal mechanisms are in a virtual universe.

It’s a disappointing treatment for an interesting topic.

Quotes

… what Earth and New Eden have in common is humanity. Jealousy, ambition, revenge, greed, hatred, and friendship are at the core of EVE Online. Human emotions and work make up the soul of New Eden, and you’ll find every emotion there that you would in the traditional world.

Groen, Andrew. Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online (Kindle Locations 44-46). Kindle Edition.

 

When I interviewed Cruse he told me about an old English king whom he’d taken inspiration from. It’s the story of King Henry II of England in the 12th century who was traveling through Britain, putting down rebellions in his various territories. At one point he traveled to Ireland and put down a rebellion, only to be informed he’d have to go back to London to suppress an even larger one. The trouble was that his army had dwindled, and to make matters worse he was forced to travel through potentially hostile territory— Wales— to get there.

King Henry’s astonishing solution was to pretend he was the reincarnation of the legendary King Arthur. He hired seamstresses to create great white banners bearing Arthur’s sigil, a red dragon. He hired minstrels and storytellers to travel ahead of his army to tell stories of how Arthur had been seen again after hundreds of years. According to the tale, he arrived on the shores of Wales that winter with basically nothing except his knights dressed in exceptionally flashy garb. For whatever reason, the people of Wales bought it. Not only did Henry II gain safe passage through the territory, but the Welsh people joined his army by the thousands.

Groen, Andrew. Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online (Kindle Locations 734-738). . Kindle Edition.

 

Being a leader also means being an event creator for your people. If a leader wants to retain their pilots’ loyalty then they need to offer them a steady stream of fun.

Groen, Andrew. Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online (Kindle Locations 1926-1927). . Kindle Edition.

 

In EVE Online there’s an influential theory known as a “failure cascade”— initially developed by Goonswarm’s The Mittani— which describes how large-scale social groups disintegrate. The idea behind a failure cascade is that a social group is like a stack of bricks. Remove a brick, and some others that relied on it for support might come tumbling down. On their way down, they might dislodge other blocks, and so on. The chief tenant of the failure cascade is that no individual in the alliance knows they’re in the midst of one until it’s too late to stop.

Groen, Andrew. Empires of EVE: A History of the Great Wars of EVE Online (Kindle Locations 2468-2472). . Kindle Edition.

Random articles

I’ve been reading a few things recently, but my keyboard is giving me no joy. Just links for now:

One of the more fascinating phenomenons in contemporary politics is voters are using different yardsticks to measure politics and politicians. If you possess the magic of being able to convince your supporters you are somehow outside the rules of the game, that you are something different, that you are agent of transformation, then it seems you can get away with being judged by a different standard.

I was really struck by this during a field trip I did in South Australia at the end of last year. I spent several days talking to Xenophon supporters, and it was clear people warmed to him because he validated their concerns, and he had a go at trying to help people.

Results really weren’t that important. In an environment where collective expectations in voter land are low – empathy, plain speaking, appearing authentic, having a crack, sticking it up the status quo, seems to count for a lot.

  • Sydney Review of Books, Bad Writer is thought provoking, but doesn’t discuss plot.

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress tells the story of two students sent to the countryside for re-education, their struggle to find literature, and their romance with a country girl.

It was a melancholy, at times poignant piece, but not a brilliant one. Worth it if there’s nothing else on the plane.

A final decision by one of the characters felt abrupt and inexplicable; to the point that it detracted from the movie overall.

Did we see the housing market crash coming?

I’ve written before about my (rough) estimates of where the housing market is headed (here and here). John Hewson recently wrote a paragraph that would fit perfectly into a retrospective on how we should have known there was a housing bubble:

Housing prices have risen by more 250 per cent in real terms since the mid-1990s, with the median house price in Sydney now well above $1 million. Household debt is more than 200 per cent of disposable income, and greater than 120 per cent of GDP. Total taxes, charges, levies, and fees, from all three levels of government, can account for as much as 30 per cent of the cost of a house.

He later mentions that there might be a bubble:

However, our whole system is at risk of a significant drop in house prices as, indeed, was the US/global financial system in the run up to the global financial crisis, where the mountain of debt was built on a US sub-prime housing loan, which was simply a punt on house prices not falling.

Our banks are, today, heavily exposed, having become essentially building societies that also issue credit cards. These exposures are over and above their considerable climate exposures – not just to mortgages on coastal properties, and to fossil fuels, but more broadly.

The risks being run actually dwarf those of the GFC. If it goes bad, the government will be called on to intervene.

For the sake of making concrete predictions – probably by end 2018:

  • There’ll be some kind of a trigger. Possibly a further tightening of capital controls in China, possibly an interest rate hike, or maybe enough articles about a housing bubble will finally get written. Or perhaps a set of budget measures that restricts negative gearing.
  • House prices will fall. More than five per cent.
  • At least one, possibly more of the major banks will need some kind of financial support when the wholesale funding dries up. Look for the RBA’s CLF to be used, or AOMF purchase of RMBS.

Just a guess. But I reckon a good one.

More articles

I’ve been reading books too, I promise. But it’ll take a little while longer to get through those.

Some quick notes:

  • Why nothing works anymore‘ by Ian Bogost (The Atlantic, of course) doesn’t have much of a theoretical framework, but captures something interesting about technology:

In that future, technology’s and humanity’s goals split from one another, even as the latter seems ever more yoked to the former. Like people ignorant of the plight of ants, and like ants incapable of understanding the goals of the humans who loom over them, so technology is becoming a force that surrounds humans, that intersects with humans, that makes use of humans—but not necessarily in the service of human ends.

  • Jay Rosen’s article on ‘Steve Bannon’s Styrofoam Balls‘ over at PressThink is encouraging, perhaps even overly optimistic. Reality rolls all of us, eventually.

As soon as you let on that you’re using the news media the way other people do — to find out what’s happening, for real — you’re showing reality that it can roll you.