Judy Corstjens

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 14-03-18

More interesting than I'd anticipated

Having been hugely impressed with Nick Bilton's latest book - American Kingpin - I decided to read his previous book, albeit that the subject of Twitter didn't seem that exciting. In fact, the Twitter story is gripping not just because of the characters and boardroom dramas that Bilton brings to life so brilliantly, but also because Twitter is a key example of the businesses that are transforming our world. Perhaps it is another side effect of QE, but it takes my breath away to see a business losing millions of dollars a year to actually pay for a service that it gives free to its users, making zero revenue yet fighting off investors who want to give it more money (and own part...even Al Gore).

Unfortunately, the narrative stops in 2012 (the book was published in 2013) before the Twitter IPO, when skies were blue and the company was projected to be worth £100 billion in the near future. For the story since - valuation at $18b at the time of the IPO (November 2013) and the subsequent slide to $10b today, you have to Google for yourself. The book cries out for a new edition with an epilogue, though maybe this would be starting to paint a Forth Bridge for Bilton.

Narration. Professional. Good co-ordination of stops with shortish chapters.

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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-02-18

Gripping, thought-provoking, wonderful

I could not stop listening - I had to audio-walk so much this w/e that I eventually had to leave the dog at home as she was exhausted.

This is real-life Breaking Bad. A pretty normal, suburban, white, educated young man in Texas gets an idea to make it easy to buy and sell weed on-line, noticing that Bitcoin and the Dark Web have combined to make this proposition a real possibility. Hey-presto Ross Ulbricht finds himself running Amazon's evil twin from his laptop. The book reads like Breaking Bad, but is claimed to be close to reality. It is rather in the style (and brilliance) of Michael Lewis, perhaps a touch more racy, but maybe that is the material. There are plot twists here that are mind boggling.

The story is deeper than a simple crime thriller. It touches on the toxic distrust and loathing some Americans feel for their government, while at the same time providing a morality tale which shows why humans need a state - Ross gets robbed and scammed by the criminal elements he now frequents. It points at the cost and disfunction of the law and order infrastructure of the US (though there are also some real heroes). Highlights the problem of drugs - that there is so much demand out there, people desperate to buy drugs and pay large sums of money for them. How a criminal master-mind is born : Ulbricht really does order murders, but he is also just a stressed 28 year old, with a big problem he really needs to solve. There is also the business aspect - some of the challenges are similar to other 'unicorn' internet startups such as Facebook or Twitter. Less problems related to sales tax but more on the laundering side.

Narration. Perfect. Soft American voice is so unobtrusive you hardly notice it. Gentle inflexion for quotes from female and other characters without obvious accents and voices - very subtle, keeps you on track without intruding on what is meant to be a factual (non-fiction) account.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 23-01-18

Political Testament of a Lefty

I have always been a floating voter. At the last election I voted Labour, despite Jeremy Corbyn, on the basis that our local MP (Jim Fitzpatrick) does a good job for our constituency. I can’t see, logically, how it could make sense to choose a political party for life. There would be no point in democracy if people simply voted like their parents, according to their ‘faction’. But for John O’Farrell it is not like that; he has always voted Labour, he would be ‘uncomfortable’ wearing ‘tory-looking’ lace-up shoes. I was interested enough to read a book from a guy who felt like this, to understand ‘Why?’

The result was revealing and depressing. For Mr O’Farrell, politics is tribal and he is open about ‘identifying with the left’ and ‘being married to the Labour party,’ in an emotional and visceral way. This is revealing, but what was depressing is that he literally admits to being motivated largely by hate - ‘Hating the Tories’. He describes Edward Heath as the ‘hate figure of his youth who imposed the three-day week.’ [Mr Heath introduced the 3-day week because the UK did not have enough electricity to run normally while its coal-miners were on strike. This was not some capitalist plot to stop workers earning for 5-days a week.]

But Mr O’Farrell lost me completely when he suggested that had Nigel Farage died in the plane crash that only injured him, Joe Cox might not have been murdered. He also repeats his admission (already published in a previous book) that when the IRA failed to assassinate Mrs Thatcher in a bomb attack on her hotel in Brighton, his immediate reaction was, ‘Shame they missed.’ He manages to imply that his own father is a suspect racist for saying that ‘At least with the IRA you knew what they wanted, compared to the modern (Islamic – can’t say that word) breed of terrorist.’ Now, as O’Farrell, a middle-class scriptwriter, writing comedies for the BBC and gags for Gordon Brown, mellows and comes towards 60 years of age, he waves away the excesses of his youth and says hatred is not a good basis for politics. Still, he doesn’t question the policies of Jeremy Corbyn – scrapping student tuition fees and all the other giveaways in the latest manifesto seem great to him. One can only feel relieved that on the several occasions when O'Farrell stood for elected office he was roundly rejected by the British public.

Did I enjoy the book? I think I learned something, understood more deeply the observation that the ‘hard left’ is actually very like the ‘hard right’ (I’ve just read ‘Fire and Fury’ on Trump). It is scary, but political tribalism is driven by hatred. I will stay a floating voter.

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4 of 4 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 28-10-17

A crusade against an army of straw men

I've had a soft spot for Richard Dawkins from when I first read The Selfish Gene, but you really have to wonder where Mr Dawkins is going now. Most of the views he fights against in this book seem to me only to be held by utter cranks. He (and his wife) voice these cranky views in such hyperbolic inverted commas, that they must feel this too. At one point (theoretically addressing arch-crank, HRH The Prince of Wales) Dawkins launches into a complete rant against David Cameron and his decision to hold a referendum on Brexit. How did that get into a book on science? Dawkins is really quite offensive, saying that there is a rule about not letting imbeciles into the House of Commons, which should have been applied in Cameron's case. Anyway I digress. The point is that I cannot understand who this book is for. If you hold cranky new-age ideas you won't read a book by Mr Dawkins, if you basically love learning, rationality, enlightenment, and all that Dawkins has fought to defend all his life, you will not discover much new or interesting in this book. It mostly sets up silly ideas and then demolishes them.

Narration. Oh dear. If you heard me talk you would probably mark me up as someone a bit posh, but this ivory-tower simpering is too much even for me. The exaggerated respect for the 'ordinary person' who really should not be talked down to. Yuk. I'm sorry - this man is rich enough to pay for professional actors to read his works.

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13 of 19 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 21-09-17

20 hours very well spent

I hesitated for almost a year before plunging into this book as it looked rather intimidating. Don't hesitate - this is really worth listening to NOW. Mukherjee uses 'Gene' as the title, because the Gene is the central idea, but he points out that the Gene is to biology what the Atom is to Physics and the Bit or Byte to computer science or IT. Meaning that the book is really the history of biology, or more importantly of how we have come to understand our own selves at a molecular level, and actually got to the point where we can tinker with our own blue-print. I have this crazy image in my head of a grinning tin robot holding a shiny new spanner, lifting up the lid of her metal cranium and poking inside, meanwhile saying 'I have this idea that I have a screw loose, and I think I can probably fix it with this new spanner.' That is about the position of the human race at this point in time. The spanner is gene editing technology. Mukherjee explains very clearly the opportunities and risks, it's both scary and exciting.

I'll mention one other thing. It is very hard to understand how difficult it is to discover things. For example, Darwin almost had a nervous breakdown trying to understand how characteristics could be both accurately passed down generations and yet also create variation. How hereditary particles could behave like paints (which blend) and yet preserve distinct variations. In terms of logic, Heredity seems to behave like 'X' and 'not X' at the same time. Similarly scientists were all circling around DNA for ages before they finally landed on the double helix. Mukherjee has a genius for making it clear how hard it is to work things out for the first time.

One last thing. The book is full of fairly advanced science, but Mukherjee also uses examples from his own family (who have a history of Schizophrenia) and other families to add a personal and more accessible slant to the book. Readers of his previous magnum opus on Cancer will recognise this approach. For me it works very well to relate the science to actual human lives that are affected, for better or worse, by the dry stuff that happens in laboratories.

Narration. American so not really a true reflection of the Indian-born author, but very professional, competent, measured (he does a slightly angry voice only when this is appropriate).

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8 of 8 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 27-06-17

Case Histories in Financial Madness

Michael Lewis goes on a post Financial Crisis tour of Iceland, Greece, Germany and California. He meets interesting people who did dubious things between 2002 and 2007, and he gets them all to tell him their amazing stories of stupidity and hubris. Mr Lewis writes entertainingly and with insight, rounding up each episode with his own wry observations that aim to throw light on what really happened in that period, on what happens when different types of people or societies are offered as much money as they want to borrow (essentially). It is all a bit worrying, as with interest rates still as low as ever, I'm pretty sure this whole debt show is still rambling on. Enough to keep the wonderful Mr Lewis usefully employed for the rest of his life.

Narration. Perfect, slightly excitable at times, but fitting to the content, and no silly accents for the foreign people.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 25-05-17

Hugely controversial - but gripping

Douglas Murray believes that the unprecedented scale of the current immigration into Europe will fundamentally change the nature of our continent and culture. He argues that this has been permitted, or sometimes encouraged, by the political class, but has never been supported by the populations of European countries. When polled, solid majorities reject the idea that their country should welcome in large numbers of strangers.

Clearly, this is thin ice for any commentator, and I sometimes found the book too negative and polemical. I'm not sure the typical European is guilt-ridden and self-flagelating to the degree Murray portrays. However, he constantly scores points which cause me a sharp intake of breath. I'll mention two. How long would it take the reader to become a fully operational Chinese person - speaking and writing Chinese and well-integrated into Chinese culture? And yet we think a Somalian, or whatever, can integrate into Germany or England with a few culture and language lessons? Hmm, quite an interesting thought experiment. Second, he asks why the birth rate is so low in most rich European countries. I know the answer (from my personal experience as someone who would dearly like to become a Granny), but Murray supplies it anyway. If you are a two-working-parents family in the UK or Italy the costs of setting yourself up with a home and security, mean you have to wait to start a family. If you start late, and struggle with those costs, you will only have one or two children. Is the answer to this to bring in young people from abroad to make up the demographic shortfall? Ouch Douglas, that really hurt. I found Murrey's softness for Christianity a bit odd; Yes, they built nice Cathedrals, but Europe didn't get rid of barbaric practices like slavery, torture and homo-phobia because of Christianity - it took reason and the enlightenment for that.

If you are a Jeremy Corbyn supporter, or a PC-liberal sort of person, you will find this book hard to read and no doubt you will dismiss it as polemical if not downright racist. People have been shot for saying things of this ilk, so I do hope DM takes his precautions. For myself, I found it refreshing to hear someone educated (Eton, Oxford) and measured taking on this difficult subject (Nigel Farage eat your heart out).

Narration: Robert Davies is an excellent match for the author, and has the added skill of being able to correctly pronounce names and phrases in French, Dutch, German... However, he commits the cardinal sin of non-fiction narration: Davies does accents for quotes from foreigners. I find this becomes unbearable when he is called upon to do the voice of an immigrant - for example, the Somali-Dutch-American Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She probably doesn't even speak like that. Ugh.

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13 of 20 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 20-05-17

A very clunky novel

Clunky, in the sense that 1984 and Atlas Shrugged are clunky, this is a plodding novel tackling sociology and economics in the digital age. I read it in this spirit - as a discussion of the dilemmas we face with big data and social networks: the advantages of transparency Vs privacy and identifiability Vs anonymity, forcing social responsibility and conformity against the individual's 'right' to stay apart, unmonitored and anti-social. To my mind I ended up more in favour of transparency and forced identification; Eggers seems to land few punches in favour of anonymity, despite trying to warn of some dystopian, digital future.

Clunky means the characters are made of cardboard and there is virtually no plot. People behave in unlikely ways and believe unlikely things (in my experience, people are much less easy to lead by the nose than Eggers thinks). Eggers also makes the classic errors of a man narrating as a woman: his heroine, May, enjoys, and is keen to repeat, perfunctory (but hugely satisfying) sex in a toilet with a strange man who has failed to give her his name (and turns out to be... oh, I shouldn't spoil things, should I? ). The only clothes described are when May is 'wearing a red silk blouse and black skirt'. Dave, either do some research into how women think or narrate as a man.

Narration. Professional, appropriately Californian.

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8 of 10 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-05-17

Quite a hard read

I was constantly rewinding and ended up buying a hard copy. I would say Mervyn King is not a natural story writer - not a Michael Lewis - and the subject matter is hard. King seems to argue that people 'decide' to 'bring forward future earnings to the present' because they see the low interest rates and overestimate their future earnings (a sort of rational error). I think people just get into debt because they 'can', so I found some of his theorising unconvincing. I liked his 'paradox of policy', which explains why politicians are attracted to Keynesian expansion, because it works short term, but which actually gets them deeper in the s*** long run. This explains something that had been puzzling me - why politicians believe that more debt is a solution to a debt crisis. It is a paradox, comparable to Keynes's paradox of thrift. By the way, there is not really an optimistic ending to this book.

Narration. I found it irritatingly 'Jackanory'. ie. the style is like an adult reading to a child, with exaggerated emphasis on clues as to what will happen next.

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6 of 6 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-05-17

A valuable book

I don't have OCD, but I'm interested as a 'third party', and I found this account very valuable to help me understand, as far as one can (OCD does seem so odd to someone who is not affected directly). I do believe that David Adam is a genuine expert on the subject through being a sufferer himself, with insights more worthwhile than those of 'expert psychologists' who try to treat sufferers. He weaves his own story in with his reading of scientific research and his own experience of treatment, to provide a convincing overview of the whole topic. I cannot recommend this book to sufferers, but I would recommend it enthusiastically to anyone in my position, trying to be sympathetic and helpful to a sufferer.

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4 of 4 people found this review helpful