A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Reading the Best of 2015: Part Four

(Previous instalments)

Fare Trade: Breaking Down London's Taxi Debate by John Bull is an engaging, balanced, meticulously researched discussion of the London Black Cabs and the challenges they currently face, in particular from Uber. Bull eventually concludes that "there are no easy answers", but unfortunately for him there are. If people want Black Cabs to stick around they can pay for them to stay around, and if they don't need Black Cabs then TfL should just let the Cabs go. I could write a long essay explaining this point by point, but I really have better things to do with my time. Nevertheless, this essay is quite plausibly the best essay of the year that happens to be demonstrably wrong.

After the snide jab that was the last article I read about Trump, I was not looking forward to Scott
Adams' Clown Genius. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. The article is neither an endorsement nor a mockery of Trump, it simply explains a plausible account of why Trump is doing so well in polling. My prior is to be sceptical that anyone in a sufficiently demanding occupation really knows what they're doing, so I'm not really convinced, but Adams is nevertheless persuasive and demonstrates both a grasp of important psychological concepts, and intellectual humility. At the moment the topic feels a bit too facile to go beyond the shortlist, but if Trump does somehow go on to win nomination or even the presidency, I will be ready to posthumously declare this the winner.

A more unusual topic was covered by Howard Shulman in an abridged excerpt from his autobiography, Running from the Mirror. Having lost his face to a bacterial infection at three days old and having been abandoned by his parents shortly after, Shulman endured a difficult childhood with multiple foster parents and numerous operations. Eventually he traced down his biological mother - his father having since died - and confronted her about it, after which the narrative ends.

The writing is fluent, if unexceptional.

I can't say I liked the author as a person. Sure, the problems he endured while growing up were caused to a considerable extent by other people and by his infection, but there's no sense of responsibility. And while he has a genuine case for anger at his parents, there's no attempt to empathise, no attempt to interpret their actions in anything approaching a charitable light. He finds out that she - mistakenly - believed him to have been adopted, and doesn't rethink his judgement of her in the slightest. He may have had an unpleasant start, but that doesn't justify or excuse the person he has become. If I may be unkind for a moment, I find it not in the least bit surprising that he is 38, still single, and seems somewhat insecure about it.

It's hard to assess Andrew Schwarz's The Illiad and the IPO without reading the article it summarises. Schwarz begins by observing that many publicly-traded companies have defences against takeovers, despite this leading to lower share prices. He theorises, with reference first to the Illiad and then to other, less mythical, historical greats, that this is due to the desire of founders to achieve a place in history.

I'm not going to read the article, so I'm hardly in a position to say that he's wrong. That said, Schwarz fails in the summary to explain what would count as evidence for this claim, much less provide it. But without this, his article is at best providing a different possible model for companies, and not an informative one given that it is constructed purely in order to merge existing data with an unsubstantiated theory.

As a side note: why is immortal fame better than fame in one's lifetime? Sure, they go together to some extent, but if it were a choice between the two then I'll note that there's only one of them which you can exploit for money, power and sex.

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