Locust Effect? Fairly depressing with no good prescription

Locust Effect Cover

Gary Haugen’s The Locust Effect is both an important read as well as very frustrating read. As the book’s heart, Haugen seeks to lay out the case that the billions of aid that we spend on economic development as well as medical and social development is completely hampered by the lack of justice for the poor.  His data is complete and compelling – he illustrates the importance of sex crimes within the poor of areas such as Narobi, the Philippines, and Peru.  He shows the lack of judicial access that the poor have worldwide – and the crimes that result from that, ranging from slavery to property confiscation.  He calls this the Locust Effect – a plague of locusts that will eat up the benefits of international aid to the poor.

His particular concern is the lack of equity for the poor women of the world, especially in light of studies that show that women hold the key for bringing out of poverty.  For example, education of females is critical for reducing poverty yet school has become a primary location for sexual violence against girls, leading to families holding their daughters out of school.  And there is no recourse for the poor in terms of the legal system.  Should aid be spent on guaranteeing education for females? Yes, but unless buffered by law & order mechanisms, it will be largely wasted.

Haugen does not just a good job, but a great job in laying out  his thesis – that aid without access to justice and law enforcement is subject to be ineffective.  By mixing in personal stories with data, his is a thoroughly depressing book that makes you wonder what can be done.  And that becomes the root of the problem with the book.  It does not give a clear picture of how the reader can effectively help change?  Donate to his organization, International Justice Mission (which is a truly great cause, by the way)?  Call our congresspeople?  You just don’t know.  The key to a book like this lies not just in shining a light in a dark place, but showing how the reader can help bring people out of darkness.  Is there an easy answer? No, but some signposts on the way for the average reader to go would have made the book much more effective.

🙂 🙂 🙂 out of 5

Book Review – The Engish Assassin

ImageAhh. Guilty pleasure books, AKA – Bill wants to pad his book numbers for the year.  You can’t really count The English Assassin by Daniel Silva as anything more than a guilty please, but that’s okay.  It is what it is – a quick read that does not pretend to be intelligent or realistic.  Just an action thriller that seeks to entertain.  It’s the literary equivalent of a later Roger Moore James Bond movie.

The English Assassin is the second novel in an ever-expanding series about Gabriel Allon, an Israeli secret agent who doubles as a world-class art restorer – a man trying to recover himself from his past tragedies by throwing himself into restoring the world’s art treasures.  Tragically for him, his country keeps calling him back to service and to chaos.

For this episode, Silva has Gabriel facing off against the great bankers of Switzerland who are trying to bury their past from World War II.  The book is straight-forward in narrative with few plot twists, except the conclusion – which does not live up to the rest of the book.  Even with a simple plot line, The English Assassin delivers the goods it seeks to – as long as you are looking for a quick book to read on an airplane or beach.  This is not a thinker.  The joy is in its pacing, a book that can be consumed quickly and keeps you moving along. Character development?  Nope.  Any revelations are forced and serve to move plot.

Predictable?  Yes, but so was the movie Titanic and that didn’t stop it from making billions.

Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 out of 5 (but not on literary merit, just fun)

Book Review – Soccernomics

ImageLike soccer? Chances are, you’ll dislike this book. Likewise, if you like statistics, you’ll dislike this book. Since Freakonomics and Moneyball, there has been a serious misuse of statistical analysis to prove a lot of things. As a person who works on strategy and research, I should know. I’m well aware of the dark arts.

It’s not that Kuper and Szymansky are bad writers. They’re not. It is a thoroughly engrossing book that keeps you reading. The problem is that it fails to understand what statistics can and cannot solve. For example, they use great regression techniques to show why certain nations are where they are in terms of world soccer rankings and success. They narrow down experience (how many internationals has the world played as a whole), resources available to the country, and population.

[Read more…]

Book Review – Models.Behaving.Badley

I’d like to say I picked this book up because I wanted to hear about naughty models…but I didn’t

I’d like to say that this book this book was worth it…but I can’t.

Honestly, I think that it probably would have been more interesting if it were about Victoria’s Secret models living on Temptation Island.  As Lori so wonderfully pointed out, I read boring (my words, not hers) economics books.  This took that to an extreme.

The author, Emanuel Derman, is undoubtedly a genius.  He is a physics PhD who moved to become a quant jock for Goldman Sachs before moving back into academics in 2002.  The problem is that he spends a lot of time talking physics (and psychology, with a lengthy discourse on Spinoza) to build up to the point that we take it for granted that financial models used for investing are accurate when, of course, they aren’t really accurate at all.  75% of the book or more is spent trying to prove the difference between theory (something that actually describes an event, or a thing) and a model (something that acts as an analogy to simplify).  Great stuff.  Just around 100 pages too long.

When he gets to the economics, he actually is surprisingly weak.  His idea is to show that people in finance (and in general) put too much trust in models as theories – accurate representations of how the world works – when in reality they were only meant to simplify the view (by doing such things as assuming that the price of an asset takes into account perfect knowledge).  He then shows the holes – the people acts irrationally, that they herd together, that the models just cannot model risk effectively.  And he does it.  It just doesn’t marry enough real world examples to his explanations of the various models (Efficient Market, Black Scholes, CAPM).  For a book that wants to show us how the markets failed, it does not take the step of really diving into what went wrong in 2007.  Take a pass on this one.

Book Review – Little Bee

Little Bee by Chris Cleave takes on the serious issue of immigration to the developed world.  What is the responsibility of a rich nation to support those who are less fortunate – indeed, those whose very lives are destroyed by the economic pressures caused by the needs of the developed world?

He sets up the world of Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria who is fleeing the oil wars in the delta region of that nation.  She has seen atrocities and, for that, will likely die if she returns to her homeland.  However, she is not wanted in England as Nigeria is officially categorized as a nation without repression.  Cleave juxtaposes this story with the tale of a British magazine editor recovering from a great tragedy of her own.  Together, these tales are meant to tell a tale of redemption, of love, and of hope as Little Bee and Sarah lean on each other over a short period of time.  To tell more would be to spoil the plot lines of the book.

The book will deliver readability and makes a great pick up for a summer trip.  That is a statement on the plot and length – not the readability of themes or the appropriateness of a light read on a serious topic.  Understand, it can be a disturbing book in some ways as you go through it.   The book is also hampered by a lack of depth in characters.  Little Bee and Sarah are both great characters for a summer book, but a book that challenges such a divisive issue as immigration deserves strong characters at the core.  And to make it worse, all other characters are – for the lack of a better term – cads.

Likewise, the overall treatment of the theme is simplistic.  It paints an unrealistic picture of the problems in immigration (specific to the UK, but I suppose these lessons can be generalized).  It shows the problems that immigrants face in seeking asylum from real persecution or poverty, but does not even begin to deal with solutions.  Letting everyone in is not a complete solution.  Nor is depending on the kindness of strangers to deal with people coming into the country and not having anything – even marketable skills.  As I stated about the character development, a tragedy of the scale painted by Cleave deserves more depth

A person who knows nothing about the subject and just wants a quick read may be pleased with Little Bee but those looking to chew on one of the more serious subjects of our time will be left wanting.

REVIEW- Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

What is the statute of limitations on hatred?  How many people need to be hurt before you move from suspicion to trust? Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters explores these questions in his book about the decade-long war that consumed the Congo, resulting in the deaths of 5 million people.    And another 1 million perished in the run up to it from the Rwandan genocides in 1994.  Stearns dives right into these issues – Why did this happen?  Who is responsible? – and presents his thesis in a readable, accessible style that can be absorbed by people (like me) who are not familiar enough with the conflict in the Great Lakes of Africa (Seriously, 6 million people died due to ethnic conflict and how much do we know about it?)

What works within this book?  Even if you disagree with him, Stearns has put together a set of compelling theses.  First – the West has continuously failed the Congo and the Great Lakes region – from slavery to Belgian colonialism (which was highly brutal) to the failure to aggressively step into the Rwandan genocide and the first Congo conflict – and as such has a responsibility to clean up.  Second – the conflicts really are evolved from the Tutsi/Hutu ethnic identity wars – from ethnic Tutsis being rejected from Zaire to the Hutu militants responsible for the genocide establishing a base in Zaire amongst the Hutu refugees to the Rwandan response that caused the war.  Stearns lays out a strong case that the root of the conflict is other ethnicities paranoia about Tutsis and the Tutsis’ reaction to proactively protect themselves.  Third – in protecting themselves, the Tutsi government in Rwanda engaged actively and passively in ethnic cleansing within the Congo conflict.  Fourth – the war was not about mineral resources, but governments were more than willing to take advantage of the mineral resources presented to them in the areas they controlled to finance their war efforts.  Again, each of these arguments is established clearly and concisely.  Each is documented clearly.

What didn’t work?  Stearns chooses to use a non-linear narrative structure that can be at times confusing.  Also, it is not documented within the ebook (it may be on the physical book dustcover) that Stearns was a UN investigator into the conflict as well as working for an NGO within the Congo during the conflict.  Although it does not change the evidence he presents, it’s important in a book of this nature to know any author’s bias going in.

That said, I would encourage everyone – interested in the area or not – to read the book for a primer in a glossed over yet critical piece of world history.

2010 Summer Reading List

Final Summer Reading

I hear that accountability is a good thing, so I figure I should check in and see how I did against my list of books.  Got halfway through the second list.  I’m thinking of adopting audiobooks to improve my success rate, but I’m not sure they count. 🙂

What books did I miss that I absolutely need to read?  Thoughts?

  • The Confessions of Max Tivoli – Andrew Sean Greeg (Gave up – fairly boring)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (Good read)
  • The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers – Thomas Mullen (Intriguing)
  • The Siege of Krishnapur – JG Farrell (Still on the list)
  • Forces of Fortune – The Rise of the New Muslim Middleclass- Vali Nasr (Up next)
  • The Plundered Planet – Paul Collier (Good read, not as good as The Bottom Billion)
  • Blind Descent – James Tabor (Good read, not as good as In Thin Air)
  • The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors – James D Hornfischer (Still in the list)
  • Beware of Small States – David Hirst (Reading now.  Writing still is choppy, but the content is good.  An overview of the roots of the Lebanese conflict)