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Posts about books (old posts, page 85)

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote

1965


Reportage about a gruesome quadruple murder followed from beginning to end. It's a deservedly classic tale, a "non-fiction novel" (as Capote described it) where the basic plot is true but with the dialogue and details elaborated for the sake of story-telling.

I first read this book about thirty years ago, and my perceptions of it this time are rather different to back then. There was a basic question I didn't then ask, but should have done: what is the position of the author in this?

Capote as a character is entirely absent from the book, as is Harper Lee, who accompanied and assisted him. It's since been revealed that Capote was in fairly close contact with the perpetrators, and had to wait – with increasing frustration – until they were executed and he could finally close (and publish) the story. He presented himself and the story differently to them than it was in reality, and there's a slightly ghoulish aspect to the way he needed them to die for literary effect as much as for anything else: the death row and execution scenes are some of the most powerful in the book, and it really wouldn't work without that end to the character arcs.

5/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Missing Cryptoqueen: The Billion Dollar Cryptocurrency Con and the Woman Who Got Away with It

The Missing Cryptoqueen: The Billion Dollar Cryptocurrency Con and the Woman Who Got Away with It

Jamie Bartlett


A counterfeiting tale for the 21st century.

This is the book of the podcast of the same name. It centres around a banker who decided to start a cryptocurrency, One Coin, that she pitched as being able to transform the finances of those feeling left behind. In actual fact she never actually built the currency at all, just the marketing and trading infrastructure around it that allowed people to feel that their investments had worth. In the process she became entangled with various mafias and ended up on the run – so successfully that one has to consider that she's dead.

There's a sub-text to this story that the book doesn't really explore: what's the difference between a valuable and a worthless currency? It seems simply to be a matter of belief, that a currency you acquire today will be exchangeable for roughly the same services now or in a month's time. There's nothing intrinsic about this, and so cryptocurrencies aren't a flawed idea because they're not backed by a central bank, or by gold, or whatever: they're flawed because this belief can't be sustained.

So why did people invest? A lot of the hype was targeted specifically at people who were already financially insecure, and believed that. by getting in on the ground floor of the new currency, they'd experience the same dizzying ride as those who first bought Bitcoin – or at least, those who got out at the right time. Buying in on the basis of being able to get out, in other words, so basically gambling – but with a very 21st century mix of "them" not wanting "you" to know about this. Inequality, conspiracy, and magical thinking are all needed to make these scams succeed.

5/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

John Carreyrou

2018


A history of the Theranos blood-testing scandal.

Theranos was once the hottest Silicon Valley property. There seem to have been several reasons for this, one of which was not its technology, which was largely undemonstrated and unproven – and which turned out to be entirely fictitious (or "vapourware", in software terms). But it had a charismatic CEO who self-consciously fashioned herself on Steve Jobs, and an origin story phrased in terms of "disrupting" an existing industry that was worth billions. That, it seems, was enough.

This is really a story of how a weird corporate culture managed to silence its critics within and without. Those within often knew something was wrong, especially those with experience in other start-ups. Those without were either threatened or bought off. But it's shocking to what extent many senior people seemed quite content to represent, advise, and profit from a company while being contentedly ignorant of what its product actually was.

The executives in charge have faced the courts, and their defence seemed largely to be that "fake it 'till you make it" was a valid new-economy strategy. I have some sympathy with the idea, and they certainly weren't the first group to try it. Where they were perhaps more innovative was in trying this with a healthcare device, probably the most regulated business niche and not a place to attempt a fraud. Perhaps their enthusiasm ran away with them, but there's plenty in this book that illuminates shady practices and ruthlessness that don't make them look at all sypathetic.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening

Noise: a Human History of Sound and Listening

David Hendy

2013


A social and scientific history of human sound: not just undesired noise, but how sound binds societies together and how we decide what constitutes "noise" in the first place.

There are some fascinating vignettes. My favourite is the relationship between cave paintings and the soundscapes of the caves in which they're painted: many of the works occur in locations that are "significant" in the sounds that can be heard, or in the ways that sounds made there reverberate into the wider cave. There's also a discussion of colonial attitudes to the languages and music of indigenous peoples, and how the contempt for these (as "hellish din") contributed to the colonists' disdain for them.

As someone who loves silence, there are also some explorations that were awkward and discomforting for me, as to how the ability to find silence is a manifestation of "othering" others in society, and regarding their sounds as encroaching and unwanted. There's also a sense that the pursuits one enjoys in silence – like reading – often come about because the noise of their construction has been offloaded elsewhere, to impact on other people.

As to "noise", it seems to boil down to whether the sounds being heard are perceived as being made by "us" or "them", and to what extent we can exercise some control over them. That makes sound a part of the wider behaviour of a society: if we are all "us", then we will tackle excess sound differently than if those sounds are being made by a "them". In that sense, noise complaints are a measure of social cohesiveness and our willingness to rub along well with others.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World

Matt Alt

2020


A fascinating take on the effects that Japanese has had (and continues to have) on the rest of the world. This is very much a cultural history grounded in technology, and in the ways that technology drives new cultural possibilities. It's also often a study in the illogic of cultural trends, and how impossible it is to pick cultural winners.

The history of the karaoke machine justifies the book on its own. The vignettes are fascinating, perhaps most of all for me the way in which the actual machines were invented several times in response to different driving forces. But the most outstanding observation was how one of the inventors realised that perfect reproduction of songs wasn't the goal, and spent years re-recording tracks to make them easier for karaoke-singers to perform well. This is the sort of techno-cultural feedback that's fascinating.

Alt tries to draw the threads together, noting that in many ways what Europe and America are suffering in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis was presaged by Japan's "Lost decades", making the Japanese experience perhaps more characteristic of late-stage capitalism than we realised. It's an interesting point: I'm not sure Europe will ever have otaku in quite the same way that Japan has, but that's again a techno-cultural interaction in progress as we see whether social trends follow the technological or vice versa.

5/5. Finished 01 May 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)