Summer readings 2021, part 1 (audiobooks)

It’s been so long since I wrote a blog post, and I’m feeling pretty rusty. But there’s no other way to remember how to do something than practice it, so I’m going to attempt to write a new post every week, until the end of the year.

Anyway, I’m sort of short of arguments, but I was lucky enough to be able to have long holidays this summer, so in the footsteps of more successful writers, I’m going to make a short list of the things I read this summer, in the hope they will be useful to other people. But I read a lot! so I’m going to split it. This is the first instalment, talking about stuff I listened to as audiobooks.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The humble shipping container might not seem like an interesting topic, but it is! The invention/adoption/perfection of the container changed society in a way that few other things did. For example, a whole category of jobs (dockworkers) has been more or less wiped out. Entire cities that relied on people working on interchange traffic lost their income. Worldwide production chains become possible, which in turn enabled “globalization” and all the good and bad that comes with it.

Plus, the book contains pretty fascinating stories of the people who pioneered this, how they succeeded, how they failed. And of those who resisted or embraced the change. And of course, that marvel of human nature: the standardization committee!

There is something to criticize in the book, and it’s the fact that it is, for all its interesting content, far too rich of details. Honestly, it seems like it could have been 6 or 7 blog posts and still be just as informative.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I’ve been recommended this book a million times but always put it off. But I recently found out it’s included in the basic Audible membership I have, so I decided to finally listen to it.

Oh, I am so happy I did it. Feynman is hilarious, the list of anecdotes and odd situations which he experience is mindbogglingly, his insights on human nature are pretty enjoyable.

Also, it’s clear he sort of identifies himself as “anti-intellectual” which kinda resonates with my own education, although I think what he really should identify himself as “anti-pomp” (I think he mentions this at some point). It’s easy to mix up the two.

I cannot recommend this book enough. While reading it tho I couldn’t shake the feeling that, had the book been written today, people would have showed up with pitchforks; Feynman is a womanizer of the extreme kind, and plenty of the adventures (e.g. the one that starts with his regular hanging out at some topless diner (!!)) might not mix well with modern sensitivities.

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

This is another of the free books on Audible. The premise is pretty good: a guy who worked for a big corporation tells his story, explaining how there is a corrupt and ever increasing powerful force of “economic hit men”.

Such people in cooperation with the IMF, World Bank, and USAID, manage to bribe, threaten, and coax politicians and government offices from developing countries so that they get loans, the invest money in projects that promise to have grand returns for the population, but end up being realized by the same foreign corporations, which this way manage to syphon back the money, leaving the countries in deeper debt and without having achieved much. Rich people get richer, poor people get poorer, rinse and repeat.

If the people do not cooperate, then “the jackals” enter the scene, and get rid of the non-complying figures through violent means. If that fails too, there’s always war.

This is not a global conspiracy, but a modus operandi that has been initially used by the US and then by other countries, and effectively constitutes a new form of imperialism.

So far, so good. This, is honestly quite familiar to anyone who read a book or newspaper in the last 50 years, but the idea of reading a first person account is intriguing.

Sadly, the book does not hold up. It’s basically a collection of random stories which are so transparently fake that it’s incredible someone thought to write them down. Like, the guy gets recruited by the NSA be a spy. But the NSA is a code-breaking organization, it does not do that?

Then he meets this woman who explains him of the economic hit man concept Then she obviously tells him “if someone does not play by the rule <throat slash sign>“. Other than obvious corniness, I kinda think this gesture was not popular until much more recent times.

Or, the guy shows up after 9/11 in New York, and obviously meets an old muslim dude who gives him life lessons. He goes to Iran, and also meet people who give him life lessons and tell him how the West is killing their traditional Bedouin culture of leaving in the desert, “a true Persian would not allow that“. But Bedouins are like 1% of the population of Iran?

Anyway, you might say, sure, he’s embellished a story, but there will be some meat in it.

Nope, nothing. He spends an inordinate amount of time describing some situations were the US overturned a government, which you can trivially read on wikipedia, and that in all cases do not show the pattern of the countries being highly indebted, or not even match his own timeline (I.e. they predate the existence of IMF/WB). His first example, the one where he “sells his soul for the first time”, is Indonesia, which still has a debt/GDP ratio of 30-40% (compare: Italy has 130%, Germany 80%) and the poverty rate fell from >60% to 15% in the ’80s, after they started to take on debt (yes, correlation is not causation).

The even more embarrassing thing is that examples of the issue that he wants to talk about would be easy to find! He just doesn’t bother!

It’s a terrible book. But, if you never heard of any of this, it might be interesting, and the last part, basically a “what can I do“, is probably valuable. Caveat emptor.

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