Category Archives: Uncategorized

Banana

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2007) by Dan Koeppel describes the importance, history and current problems of the banana. Like Salt, Cod and other books on a single commodity Koeppel manages to make the book an engaging read.

The current large, seedless bananas that we eat are fairly recent and also are fairly fragile. As they don’t have seeds and change rapidly they are highly susceptible to disease. The Cavendish, which today is the most common type is a replacement for the Gros Michel that was taken down by Panama disease. Today Cavendish plantations have been infected with it and other diseases.

The book looks at the importance, fragility and history of the banana. A lot of the book concerns the way large US companies ran the governments of central American countries for their own aims. It’s pretty dramatic.

Later chapters look at how scientists are trying to breed tougher and better bananas and the difficulty of doing so. The role of GM in making better bananas is also discussed.

It’s a really well done book on a subject that would seem at first glance to not be particularly interesting. It’s definitely worth a read.

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer (2017) by Joe Gorman is a marvellous history of Australian men’s soccer leagues since World War Two.

Australian soccer or football is an odd beast. in a country with four national codes of football it has, for decades, been the most played but least watched code. In addition, after being played mainly by some British migrants the game changed radically with the surge in post war migration.  

For many people with a wog name, like myself, the game is tied up with identity. There are memories of going to games with parents, there are memories of watching games in places that were known through family stories. And yet, it was clear that some teams were not really for you to support. Gorman captures the issue with real skill. He also looks at the issue of ‘which team do you support’, Australia or the team of your ethnicity.

The book starts with post WWII immigration and the story of Andrew Dettre, a Hungarian immigrant who wrote for Soccer World and later worked in the Whitlam government.

There is a chapter on Canberra City, a club which was a prototype for A-League type teams that are without an ethnic base that represent a whole city. As a child I went to Canberra City games. The book gives the team quite a bit of praise. Remembering the actual games it’s generous.

The pre-NSL soccer days and then the formation, rise and fall of the NSL gets a lot of attention. Gorman looks objectively at the quality of the ethnic clubs such as Marconi, South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights and Sydney Croatia but also goes into detail about the crowd violence, particularly between the Croatian and Serb teams.

The rise of the A-League and it’s success is very well dealt with. Gorman writes honestly about how the quality of the football in the first years of the A-League was definitely worse than in the NSL. But he also appreciates the numbers of supporters and the depth of support for some of the new teams. The book also has the failures of a number of the new A-League teams. The A-League still has some of the financial issues that have always dogged Australian soccer.

Gorman writes quite a bit about The Socceroos, their qualification for the World Cup in 1974, 2006 and 2010. The portrait of Johnny Warren in particular is very good and really quite touching.

The book does note that soccer is the most played game in the country. Gorman also does provide some discussion of the success of women’s soccer in Australia. About the only thing missing from the book is a bit more discussion of how many Australians did, for a long time, watch soccer, it just wasn’t Australian. From the 1980s onwards SBS had soccer on TV and before that Match of the Day was on Australian TV for years. From the  late 1980s SBS also had Italian Soccer. SBS also had finals of the Champions’ League and Europa League and their predecessors. Today there are kids growing up who love soccer but don’t actually go to many, or any games but do follow Messi, Ronaldo and co. It’s not ideal, but it does involve playing soccer and watching soccer.

Overall the book is really fascinating for anyone with an interest in Australian soccer. Gorman has done great research and written a book that highlights the issues for soccer in Australia. Hopefully Les Murray, the great SBS soccer presenter, got a look at the book before he died. He would have been really impressed.

The Habsburg Empire

The Habsburg Empire: A Very Short Introduction (2017) by Martyn Rady is a book that describes the main history of one of Europe’s most important dynasties. Rady is a professor of European Studies at University College London and got his PhD in Budapest so he has a great background for writing a book on the Habsburgs.

There are a number of much longer and larger books on the Habsburgs out there. But for anyone wanting to come up to speed and get some idea of why the Habsburgs mattered so much and how the empire they ruled over worked at various times this book is ideal.

It covers the period when Phillip the Fair ruled Spain and much of the new world and The Phillipines and indeed contemplated an invasion of China to expand the empire to when the empire broke apart and finally collapsed in 1918.

The Habsburgs are a fascinating dynasty, they seem to have mostly achieved what they did through clever marriages and alliances and not too much by war. They were tolerant for much of their rule and ruled over a diverse collection of peoples for a long time. While it could be argued they held Central Europe back to some degree they also tended to avoid the bloodshed that succeeded them.

The book is well written and very much worth reading for anyone interested in Central European history who doesn’t want to read huge tome where much of the starting material is forgotten by the end. It’s crisp, informative and very well done.

Micromastery

Micromastery: Learn Small, Learn Fast and Find the Hidden Path to Happiness (2017) by Robert Twigger is a book that describes why you should learn small skills that appeal to you quickly and then improve on them.

The book has an interesting idea, namely that we often say we want to learn big, time consuming things that take ages to do but then never really undertake these things because they are often too hard and don’t provide rewards for our learning early enough. There is definitely something to it. Instead Twigger suggest learning small skills that are impressive and can be done more quickly and more easily and building on these skills. He suggests things like learning how to start a fire with two sticks, juggling four balls, telling a good children’s story and various other things.

He puts it forward as being a bit like punk, having an ethos of making your own things, which is really admirable.

However, the book definitely over reaches in suggesting learning these sorts of things is a great way to happiness or a panacea. It’s quite a good thing to do, better than watching TV, but the author oversells the idea.

Micromastery isn’t a bad book but it’s far from great either. It’s got some good suggestions and would have made a good essay.

In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State

In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006) by Charles Murray describes an actual, costed out Universal Basic Income (UBI).Murray is a controversial scholar but this book does actually have figures and describes how a UBI could work.

UBI has currently had a resurgence of popularity due mainly to the fear the robots and automation are believed by some to be about to dramatically reduce employment. It has supporters on both the left and right. However, people appear to be talking about very different things in terms of levels of a UBI and also tend to be very vague at best about costing such a proposal out.

In the book Murray costs out a UBI for every adult over 21 at 10K that also has a supplement of 3K paid toward a catastrophic emergency medical fund. That is, the UBI would be under the current US poverty threshold. It’s not a lot. Murray goes on to suggest that people on this kind of level of money could then save 2K a year that could be used for old age. It’s worth noting that working beyond the UBI would result in none of it being taken back and the effective marginal tax rate would be zero.

At 60K of income the UBI would start to decrease and reduce eventually to zero. So it’s not quite a UBI but it is reasonable.

Murry then goes on to describe various scenarios for various people on the UBI.

The book did make me realise that the US has various odd programs like food stamps that many other countries, like Australia, do not and that may be part of the appeal of simplifying social payments.

The book didn’t convince me that a UBI is a good idea but it did have a serious attempt at costing and describing how a UBI could work. It isn’t the UBI of some people’s dreams of, say 25K a year, but it is costed out. The book is very short and is worth reading for anyone interested in a serious proposal for a UBI.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline is a book that combines a comic convention with Neuromancer or Snowcrash. It’s catnip for people who are into recognising pop culture references from the 1970s and 1980s.

The book concerns Wade who lives in a dystopian 2044 but who escapes into a VR game world called Oasis. The creator of Oasis has died but left an Easter Egg in the game that will give the finder a huge reward. Wade and many others are after it including a predictable evil corporation IOI. There is action, 1980s references and romance. I actually started this book a while ago and abandoned it because it seemed so derivative but after picking it up again I got through it and quite enjoyed it in the end.

The book is reasonably well done and the upcoming movie based on it should be quite fun as well. It’s not fantastic, but it is quite fun.

Make it Stick

Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014) by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel is all about how to learn things, apparently pretty much everything, better.

The book looks at how when learning things people often try to reread and reread course material to learn things. This doesn’t work. Instead, they say you should learn, then self-quiz, retrieve things with further back spacing to check you still remember, interleave problems and areas, try to solve new questions without first knowing how, reflect, calibrate by checking how well you know things and use mnemonic devices.

Notably the book says that ‘learning styles’ has no solid, replicable basis.

For courses the book recommends that regular low stakes testing is used to remind students of material and that more tests lead to better recollection of the subject. It seems, however that also leads to more work for lecturers. The way they describe teaching to work best is the way it was in high school and in the early years of University for me, not the later ones. Perhaps students were expected to use such techniques on their own by then.

The learning here seems to be focused on subjects where remembering large numbers of things is key. It’s not quite so clear that it works as well for learning things that have more math in them. A Mind for Numbers might be a better book for that.

It’s interesting that the way the book describes the best way to learn seems to be the way that computer courses are tending to do. Lots of quizzes on material learnt earlier and interspacing older material. The language learning app Duolingo seems to operate exactly this way.

The book is quite good and seems to concur with other evidence based studies of learning that are around. It’s reasonably short and quite well written. It is a bit repetitive. Perhaps this is in order to embed the ideas best into the brain of a reader.