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The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography

The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography

Paul Gorman


A biography of someone with a claim to having been one of the most influential British music producers of the 20th century. I say "claim", because it's not always clear how much is reputation is deserved beyond his pivotal role with the Sex Pistols – whose own influence on punk can be disputed.

McLaren seems to have seen himself more as a fashion entrepreneur than as a musician, and indeed seemed to regard everything he did as an outgrowth of fashion in a wider sense. He emerges as a troubled individual who inflicted similar troubles on those close to him: he didn't seem to have taken his own background as a warning or as a negative example. And it's hard to decide whether some of his antics derived from a vision of how society could be different, or simply from truculence and a desire for the limelight. Gorman doesn't dig deeply into these issues, but does a balanced job of showing McLaren's strengths and weaknesses.

4/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Seven Games: A Human History

Seven Games: A Human History

Oliver Roeder


Tagged as a biography of seven games: chess, draughts, go, scrabble, poker, bridge, and backgammon, both in their structure and social histories. The social parts are often the most intriguing, especially how some games, at some times, become almost proxies for a person's character features – to the extent that without proficiency, it's hard for someone to succeed.

The least satisfying aspect, for me as a computer scientist, was the emphasis on whether, when, and how well, computers can learn to play different games. There are some great stories about the lengths to which some individual programmers have gone to create game-playing programs, that it would be good to learn more about. But it's easy to assign too much significance to a computer's gaming abilities. These revolve around the structure of the game and the effort put in to understanding it. But they tell us very little about how people play the game. Taking go as the example I'm most familiar with, using a "deep" network to create AlphaGo makes its playing decisions entirely inscrutable. It provides no insight into either the game itself or the way humans play it so well, which are surely two of the most interesting scientific questions to explore. There's a tendency to regard a game as "solved" once a computer can beat any expert human – an entirely arbitrary quality threshold, surely – without trying to understand how a human, with far different (and probably less) computing power, came to offer that threshold in the first place.

3/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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.)