Here’s a thing about Canadian-American author Gibson: you can finish one of his novels and still not know what it was actually about. This is not entirely the case with Agency, although it is certainly true that numerous parts are difficult to follow. That said, it is an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work, an addition to the world Gibson has been building over a series of books, a not-too-distant future (or maybe a present where the future has arrived but is very unevenly distributed). It is a world held together by the tenuous linkages of cyberspace, where cultures have bled into one another and everyone is running some sort of hi-tech hustle. Some of these people move from one novel to another: the main character here, ‘app-whisperer’ Verity Jane, appeared in Gibson’s 2014 outing, The Peripherals. And there are a few other familiar names, like the scary, infinitely manipulative Ainsley Lowbeer.
But the character who is perhaps the most interesting is not human at all. Eunice is an autonomous Artificial Intelligence, who has taken on the avatar of an über-cool, slightly snarky black woman. Verity is hired to assess Eunice by the company that ‘owns’ her, Tulpagenics. When Eunice turns out to be rather more autonomous than anticipated, Tulpagenics tries to close her down and abduct Verity. It is never clear why the company and its various nasty oddballs are after Verity, who does not seem to know anything of possible value, but nevertheless a chase gets under way, with Verity linking up with a cast a strange characters, including a super-rich ex-boyfriend and a remarkably versatile barista.
This being a Gibson novel, there has to be a parallel story, and it involves a future-version London. It seems like a reasonably nice place but there is a looming threat of nuclear war on the horizon. How and why this works, and how the people there can communicate with Verity and her chums, is never made clear. Is it a future alternate timeline? An Augmented Reality vision of London? There are some explanations given but they lead to more confusion than clarity. Anyway, the idea is that the London people want to ensure that Eunice is saved to (somehow) provide a better future and see the Russians off.
One way or another, Eunice and Verity are re-united, and everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of: the assumption that a benevolent AI with a dark-ish sense of humour will be good at running everything seems a bit questionable, to say the least. Maybe this will be picked up in the next book (Gibson usually works in trilogy form).
There is a wealth of interesting ideas here, developing themes that Gibson has worked with for a long time. But you don’t want to think about the narrative too much: it would warp your head. Just go with it, and enjoy it.
Appearing in Australian Spectator magazine, December 2021
Thanks to lockdowns, restrictions and jabs, 2021 was a year that might be described, to put it kindly, as challenging. We can only hope that one day we will look back on it and laugh. Or maybe we won’t.
In a time when we all needed some comic relief, the indefatigable Titus O’Reily came to our aid, with his romp Cheat: The Not-So-Subtle Art of Conning Your Way to Sporting Glory (published by Penguin, $35). He has written extensively about Australian sport, tongue firmly in cheek, but here he casts a wider net. He has a wonderful time recounting how virtually every sport has a legacy of dishonesty, from ball tampering to doping to fake injuries. Some cheating tricks are ingenious but many are just stupid. A personal favourite is the team in the Tour de France bicycle race that caught a train. Cheating is often for the money but it was rife even before sport became a big business. Some people just to want to win, it seems, by any means necessary. Perhaps they should go into politics.
Another book which reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously was Great Furphies of Australian History by Jim Haynes (Allen & Unwin, $30). It is an enjoyable meander through the country’s myths and legends, with Haynes wading through some very dusty files to set the record straight – well, straight-ish, anyway. It seems that Banjo Paterson did not write Waltzing Matilda (he wrote an early version that is a far cry from the one we know today). Captain Cook was actually a lieutenant. And, no, Australians are not the great drinkers that we think we are, coming in at a lowly number 17 on the international ranking. Haynes has a good time with all this, exploring how myths evolve and why many of them have carved a place in the national imagination.
With health at the top of everyone’s mind, Fake Medicine: Exposing the Wellness Crazes, Cons and Quacks Costing Us Our Health by Brad McKay (Hachette, $33) was a well-timed release. McKay, a GP who is also known as the host of a popular television series, sees the ‘wellness industry’ as essentially a mammoth fraud, driven by self-styled gurus who have mastered the art of Internet selling. The trick is to convince people that they can find happiness through a pricey product labelled ‘organic’ or ‘holistic’. McKay also looks at the rise of fad diets, the proliferation of pseudo-drugs, and some of the more dubious treatment methods. Most are only a waste of money but a few are actually dangerous. He manages to make all this entertaining as well as informative, noting that a good dose of scepticism might be the best remedy.
A book with few laughs is Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future by Peter Hartcher (Black Inc, $33), a well-regarded journalist and currently a fellow of the Lowy Institute. Over the past decade Xin Jinping and his circle have waged a campaign to intimidate successive Australian governments into accepting China’s right to tell everyone else what to do. Hartcher examines the various methods used, including the Dastyari bribery scandal, attempts to mobilise the Chinese-Australian community to work for them, and trade bans. The Chinese leaders can be surprisingly cack-handed, at one point issuing a list of demands that made China look like not just a bully but a hypocritical and incompetent one. They have been astonished when Australia has pushed back, even joining the anti-China ‘Quad’ of countries. Beijing, says Hartcher, is creating the very environment it feared: everyone against it. Nevertheless, China is playing a long game, and whether Australia has the will to go the distance is an open question.
The chattering classes have long been puzzled by Scott Morrison. They were stunned when he sat down in the big chair, stung by his electoral victory in 2019, and confused by his (fairly) successful handling of the pandemic. They are now seeking to understand him, and the result is no fewer than three biographies of ScoMo.
How Good is Scott Morrison? by Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington (Hachette, $35) was a disappointing effort – disappointing because the authors had previously provided a worthy biography of John Howard. They focus on only a few incidents of his time as PM, and the result is a very shallow picture. They miss one of the most interesting questions of Morrison: how did he make the transition from the ‘stop the boats’ tough guy to the ‘daggy dad’ persona that now defines him? In Morrison’s background there is good evidence of both but the feeling here is that van Onselen and Errington could not be bothered to dig it out.
Annika Smethurst, a senior journalist, is more willing to do the research, and The Accidental Prime Minister (Hachette, $40) delves comprehensively into Morrison’s upbringing, early career, and rise through the ministerial ranks. Morrison agreed to be interviewed for the book, and there are also comments from friends, colleagues, and enemies. When the Liberals got themselves into a leadership mess in 2018 he was the last man standing, and he grabbed the prize when it came into reach. Indeed, Smethurst seems to acknowledge that his ascension was ‘accidental’ only in the sense of being in the right place at the right time (mostly because he had organised it that way). He connects with Middle Australia because that is exactly where he is from, and he has never forgotten it. He generally has conservative beliefs but understands that pragmatism and flexibility are required, especially in times of crisis. The book is a solid account although it is often marred by snarky side comments and conclusions that seem to not reflect her research, such as the prediction that Morrison’s leadership might “unravel”.
In The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison (Black Inc, $33) Sean Kelly is determined to paint a dark picture. He argues that Morrison has no real beliefs and that his entire political approach is mere marketing. He notes occasions where Morrison has shifted positions but the depiction of him as an empty suit is difficult to accept, especially given his strong Pentecostal faith. It all reads as if Kelly came up with a catchy idea and selected evidence to fit. If Morrison was dogmatic and unswerving then Kelly would probably attack him for being an ideological extremist and religious zealot. He was an adviser to Rudd and Gillard before turning to a particular brand of left-wing commentary so The Game is mainly what one would expect.
In the field of fiction, the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for the year was Amanda Lohrey for her seventh novel, The Labyrinth (Text Publishing, $30). The story is narrated by a city woman who moves to a small town on the New South Wales coast to be closer to her jailed son. But she is impelled by a dream to build a labyrinth, a process which Lohrey uses as an extended metaphor for a personal journey. At first the novel appears to be painfully sad but as it unfolds it becomes a story about hope and resilience. Not all who wander are lost, is the message, and not all who are lost are wanderers.
Another award-winning book is At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (Pushkin Press, $25), which took the 2021 International Booker Prize. Told from the perspective of a Senegalese man who is pushed into the French army to fight in the trenches in World War One, it is a nightmare of escalating madness and terror, although leavened with flashes of kindness, memory and insight into the human condition. At Night All Blood Is Black is short, little more than a novella, which goes to show that how you say what you say is more important than the extent to which you prattle.
An excess of prattling seems to lie at the heart of many of the problems currently being seen in US culture. Indeed, our American cousins seem to have talked themselves into an awful quagmire of acrimony and discord. In Wrath: America Enraged (Encounter, $50), social anthropologist and academic Peter Wood tries to discern the reasons. The rise of social media, anonymous and instantaneous, made self-restraint and fair-mindedness look untenably outdated. Cable television producers realised that there was money in fostering rhetorical extremism. From this perspective, the election of Donald Trump was an outcome rather than a cause, but his combative approach sharpened the conflict. Wood hopes that the exhausting fires of rage will burn themselves out and the sensible centre will re-assert itself but he does not sound optimistic.
If Wood is looking at a big picture, the authors of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (Swift Press, $23) drill down into the emergence of Critical Race Theory (also now known as Social Justice Theory). Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explain that the core premise is that all people are defined solely by group characteristics of race, gender, and sexuality, with white males oppressing everyone else. For a time it was limited to elite universities and academic journals but it began to grow in influence around 2010. Eventually, Social Justice Theory became a meta-narrative. It now bears the hallmarks of a religion: the True Faith of the Woke. They know what they know and will not be moved. Dissent is heresy. Pluckrose and Lindsay believe that reasonable people must fight this, with solid arguments, reliable data, and personal courage. Someone has to bell the cat, they say.
Polarisation reached a remarkable extreme in the case of Hunter Biden, scion of Joe. In Laptop from Hell: Hunter Biden, Big Tech, and the Dirty Secrets the President Tried to Hide (Simon & Schuster, $45) Miranda Devine, an Australian journalist who works mainly in the US, makes her systematic way through the contents of his laptop computer, which he put in for repair but was too stoned to collect. It found its way into the public sphere in 2020, with a trove of information about Hunter’s dodgy financial deals (including apparent connections to his famous father), massive consumption of drugs and booze (mainly crack and vodka), and his many dalliances with prostitutes (sometimes complete with videos). Amazingly, the legacy media ignored it all, accepting the Democrat line that it was all a Russian disinformation plot. That sounded silly then; now it is all but unbelievable. You almost have to laugh – and if you don’t you will probably end up crying.
Despite strong competition this reviewer’s choice for the Trees Are Dying For This award, for the year’s most unnecessary book, goes to Chris Bowen, ALP frontbencher, for his book On Charlatans (Hachette, $17). The publisher of the ‘On … ’ series deserves credit for giving public figures an avenue to put forward original ideas and to survey the political environment but Bowen simply accuses anyone he doesn’t like of cheating, fraud and demagoguery, and recycles a lot of old ALP policies. Ho hum. He seems to have formed his views around 1983 and they have not moved much since then. He still sees Labor as the party of battlers and the Liberals as the party of toffs. It’s all very undergraduate. And Bowen is the smart, fair-minded thinker of his party, is he? It makes one wonder what the others must be like.
So, Chris, you have won a very cheap certificate. Suggestions for next year’s TADFT award are now open. Always welcome.
Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation Edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White NewSouth Publishing, Non-fiction 416 pp, $39
We are a people poised between the desert and the beach. Australia is known, defined and understood by its symbols, although as several of the essays brought together in this book make clear, many of those symbols are the subject of debate and controversy. There are others that reveal our wry, ironic side – and there are a few that are just plain weird. Harper and White, academics who specialise in this sort of thing, have cast a wide net, and Symbols of Australia is as entertaining as it is informative.
One of the most recognisable symbols is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, accepted as definitively Australian even by those who do not live in Sydney. As bridges around the world go it is not particularly large but its beautiful location gives it a special quality and an international profile. The graceful shape has proven to be highly adaptable, and now it is hard to imagine New Year’s Eve without a cascade of fireworks from the ‘coathanger’.
Another structure with a symbolic punch is the Sydney Opera House. The rippled skyline has become a design motif for both the spectacular and the tacky, and it is always high on a tourist’s must-see list. When it was first built it seemed to be an epic waste of money, focused as it was on highbrow culture in a country that usually likes its entertainment to be on the populist side. There is a persistent complaint that the mainstream interior does not match the extraordinary exterior but it has grown into its role, and into the landscape.
The profile of Uluru is another iconic shape, and the Rock is often seen as the symbolic heart of the country. In an environment of heat and dust it has a beauty all its own, and it is difficult to remain unaffected by its majestic presence. But a key issue remains: is it an indigenous symbol or something for all Australians to hold dear? It can, of course, be both. In fact, symbols that have long been a part of indigenous culture, such as the Rainbow Serpent, seem to be making their way into broader Australian culture, which might turn out to be an important step on the road to true reconciliation.
Any Australian who has travelled overseas knows that the kangaroo, at least in romanticised form, is tied to the national image. It is often imagined as a friendly, cuddly creature – mainly by people who have never been near a wild one – and the sheer strangeness of it is a continuing source of global fascination. Many farmers see it as a pest, or sometimes as a resource to be harvested. But even those who have a good reason to dislike the ‘roo accept its symbolic weight.
Something that is a cultural icon but has seldom been accepted outside the national shores is Vegemite. Defined by one of the catchiest jingles ever written (“we’re happy little Vegemites, as bright as bright can be”) it has a place in most kitchen cupboards. It was originally marketed as a health food although its high salt content eventually required a change of message. Nevertheless, Vegemite has straddled the gap between product and symbol, and Australians will probably still be spreading it in a hundred years.
If Vegemite is uniquely Aussie, there are doubts about the origins of another food with a symbolic role, pavlova. The New Zealanders claim to have come up with the idea of a meringue-style pie/cake dish but there is evidence that it developed in several places at roughly the same time. Whatever the back story, Australians have claimed it as a culinary treasure, ignoring that it was named after a ballerina from Russia. And there is a crucial question: what fruit is best on top? The debate continues.
If Australia has a cultural dress code, it is probably topped off by the Akubra hat – even though most people will never actually wear one. Somehow, it does not work very well in big-city environments but it undeniably connects to the wide open spaces. On the political side, it seems that only National Party candidates can make it work; Liberal and Labor leaders always look inauthentic when wearing one.
Another symbol that has led to trouble for politicians is the ‘democracy sausage’ that is a part of Australian elections, as there are unwritten but crucial rules about how it is eaten (from the end!). There is actually an organisation called Democracy Sausage, which provides the locations of fundraisers on Election Day. The organisation’s coat of arms is a kangaroo and an emu, at a barbie.
Our national symbols will surely continue to evolve, and Australians will continue to add to them, argue about them, and make jokes about them. Which is, in the end, exactly as it should be.
Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbour and Germany’s March to Global War By Brendan Sims and Charlie Laderman Basic Books, 510 pages
It is a puzzling landmark in the history of World War Two: why did Hitler declare war on the US, thereby drawing America directly into the conflict in Europe, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour? This comprehensively researched book, by two academics specialising in military history, tackles the question. They delve deeply into the thinking of all the major participants, drawing on memoirs, government documents, correspondence, and media reports.
The book cannot be classed as revisionist history, as not much about the crucial decision has been written. Most historians have put it down to Hitler going off on another unhinged jaunt and left it at that. But to Sims and Laderman this is not a sufficient answer. Crazy is not the same thing as stupid.
A crucial point here is the role played by the US Lend-Lease program, which supplied desperately needed food, fuel and war material to Britain and Russia in the years before Pearl Harbour. Churchill had (privately) declared his strategy to win the war by “dragging the Americans in” but it was proving much more difficult to do than say. However supportive Roosevelt might have personally been to Churchill he was keenly aware of the strong isolationist streak in the public and Congress. Indeed, he was stretching the limits of his authority with the Lend-Lease program, maintaining support only by emphasising that the US was extracting benefits from Britain. Even when German submarines began to sink US supply ships there was not much change in sentiment.
The isolationist view underwent an overnight metamorphosis with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Many Americans wanted to focus on Japan, ignoring Europe. Some Lend-Lease supplies were diverted to the US military, and there was a real danger that British resistance and Russian battlefield efforts would flounder. But Roosevelt was generally able to hold the line, partly by arguing that the Nazis were pulling Japan’s strings. He would have known that this was not true, as the US had broken the codes to German diplomatic communications, but Roosevelt was never one to worry about the details.
In fact, Hitler and his circle were surprised when Pearl Harbour happened. But they were not displeased, especially when the Japanese rode over British forces in Asia. The thinking was that if the British had to direct more forces to Asia, and the US had to wind back support for its allies, then this was good for the Reich.
Logical enough, but it does not explain why Hitler took the extra step of declaring war on the US (he had told Japan that he would but the promise could easily have been pushed aside). Sims and Laderman examine his statements and thinking, coming back to his view that Roosevelt was controlled by a far-reaching conspiracy of Jews and financiers. Ludicrous, of course, but it shows that his thinking was all of a piece. Given this, he believed that eventually the US would declare war on Germany, so it would be to his advantage to take the initiative.
Sims and Laderman note that Hitler had no real plan to fight the Americans, and knew that over the long term the US could simply out-produce everyone else. There was a hope that the Japanese could consolidate their gains in Asia and the Pacific and eventually force a peace with ‘spheres of influence’, and that Germany could do the same in Europe. But there was no significant co-operation between the Reich and Japan, beyond agreements signed mainly for propaganda purposes.
There were many balls in the air. What if Russia attacked Japan (or Japan attacked Russia), dividing Russia’s forces and draining strength from the battle with Germany? What if Vichy France finally declared itself on the Nazi side? What if the Japanese took Hawaii, limiting the US to the mainland? All these things were possibilities at the time. But when the Japanese were defeated at the Battle of Midway, it was clear that not only were the Americans going to win in the Pacific but they had the industrial capacity to support all the other anti-Axis forces as well.
Sims and Laderman acknowledge that it could all been very different. What if the Japanese had attacked only the British forces in Asia, so that America remained (largely) neutral? What if the isolationist forces in the US had successfully curtailed the Lend-Lease program? What if the Russian push had faltered, resulting in a prolonged stalemate? What if … what if … this game can be played in many different ways, but the point is that it only came to one ending.
In hindsight, it looks inevitable, and the authors marshal so much research material that their conclusions are hard to deny. The key question of why Hitler declared war on the US has a straightforward answer: because that was where his chain of logic, perverted as it was, led him. Strategically, there was a narrow window of opportunity to build a new system of blocs, dividing the world into quasi-empires. But the moment passed, and the rest is history.
A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload
By Cal Newport
Penguin, $33, 320 pages, ISBN 9780241341414
Newport is a professor of computer science who has written extensively about communications technology. In this book he takes a deep dive into the way that email has taken over so much of our life and time, creating a “hyperactive hive-mind workflow”. He readily acknowledges that email was, when it first appeared in the 1990s, more productive than paper memos but now the sheer volume of information circulated by email systems has become a problem. Work has become a web of unscheduled communication threads even if much of the information is, when considered, irrelevant to our actual duties. Email requires a constant shifting of cognitive mindset, leading to exhaustion and muddled thinking.
There are software packages that can help to control the flow but the real answer is company policies to combat overload. Does that message really need to be copied to everyone, or sent at all? Can there be a schedule for particular types of information? Is there a better method of collaboration than strings of fragmentary emails? In other words, think before you send. Some of Newport’s proposals might be easier to say than do, but nevertheless he provides a new way of looking at an important issue.
Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla, and the Bet of the Century
By Tim Higgins
Penguin, $35, 400 pages, ISBN 9780753554388
The idea seemed obvious: why not use lithium-ion batteries, already powering a host of digital devices, in cars? Simple answer: because large lithium-ion batteries can dangerously overheat. Higgins explains how a stream of engineers wrestled with this problem for years but it was only when Musk came up with a reliable cooling system that electric cars became viable. He became a major investor of Tesla in 2004 and jumped into the CEO role in 2008. As a hard-driving leader with decent tech skills he dragged the company into the spotlight, and electric cars eventually hit the road.
It could not have happened without him but Musk is a hard person to like. Known for a mercurial temper, on-the-spot firings, and astonishing self-aggrandisement, he comes across as an entrepreneurial genius with a streak of conman – or maybe it is the other way around. He managed to position the electric car as a civilisational breakthrough even as he was ruthlessly collecting subsidies.
It is not easy to separate the stories of the electric car, Tesla, and Musk, but Higgins manages to keep the narrative streams organised. Fascinating stuff, and it cannot be denied that Musk has made a dent in the universe.
Huddle: How Women Unlock Their Collective Power
By Brooke Baldwin
Harper Collins, $53, 304 pages, ISBN 9780063017443
Baldwin, a journalist and anchor with CNN, is interested in the way that women organise into groups to overcome adversity and discrimination. Such “huddles”, she says, can provide crucial support and advice, and a means to advance causes of special interest to women.
Baldwin speaks with women who have established or joined a group. One particularly interesting “huddle” is made up of lawyers who have found their way up blocked by discrimination, and are working to overcome it. Another is a group of nurses who say that mutual support has been critical in helping them deal with the pressures generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baldwin believes that successful women have an obligation to help others climb the ladder. She looks at an organisation set up by actress Reese Witherspoon to assist women in the notoriously sexist Hollywood environment and speaks with the founders of the #MeToo organisation. Baldwin started out with the premise that “huddles” were a recent phenomenon but she eventually realises that there is a long, if quiet, history.
All of the cases that Baldwin explores are American but nevertheless there are universal lessons in this book about the value of networking and the power of collective action.
Shorter: How Working Less Will Revolutionise the Way Your Company Gets Things Done
By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Penguin, $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780241406786
The way to increased productivity and profits is not working ever-longer hours, says workplace consultant Pang. Just the opposite: innovation comes from clear thinking and creativity. Shorter looks at many companies that have moved to four-day weeks (without reducing remuneration), with good results for the bottom line. Done properly, reducing the work week improves recruitment and retention, and employees – especially those who are parents – report improved focus, less stress and better mental health. People are less likely to experience burnout, and client satisfaction improves.
Pang’s research suggests that most companies that have moved to a shorter week are medium-sized enterprises in the knowledge sector, led by founders who are recovering workaholics. However, there is nothing to stop large corporates making a comparable transition. New-gen communications technology has a key role to play in using time efficiently. Meetings, which consume huge amounts of time, is another area to consider: putting a simple timer on the table can prevent distractions.
Pang emphasises that no single model fits all situations. But now is a good time for leaders to consider whether a shorter week is suitable for their company. Working better by working less might initially seem counter-intuitive but the idea deserves thought.
Talent, Strategy, Risk: How Investors and Boards Are Redefining TSR
By Bill McNabb, Ram Charan and Dennis Carey
Harvard Business Review Press, $49, 224 pages, ISBN 9781633698321
Between them, the authors of this book bring a wealth of experience about investment trends and corporate management to the table. They argue that the short-term metric of Total Shareholder Return is no longer relevant, as the dominant investment players are now institutional funds that look for long-term gains. McNabb, Charan and Carey propose a different kind of TSR called talent, strategy and risk, because decisions and actions around these factors determine whether and how a company creates lasting value.
A key part of this transition is the expansion of the role of the Investor Relations Officer. Instead of a predominantly PR function, the new IRO has to have the financial acumen to explain and contribute to corporate strategy. This would include the implementation of plans as well as risk assessment and mitigation in areas such as cybersecurity and geopolitical changes. The IRO also has to be able to think like an activist shareholder, and shape company responses to emerging issues accordingly.
At the board level, the strategy of a company has to be clearly communicated to institutional investors, including the impact of recruitment decisions. None of this will be easy, say the authors, but all of it is essential.
Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
By Adam Grant
Penguin, $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780753553893
One of the hardest things to change is your own mind. But the world is a turbulent, unpredictable place, says Grant, an academic specialist in organisational psychology, so knowing when to rethink your thinking is valuable skill. He provides a framework for determining when circumstances have changed enough to require a new approach, with examples of failure and success at thinking again. Conviction and grit are important but so is flexibility and dynamism.
It takes humility to accept that one’s outlook needs revision. But Grant emphasises the importance of maintaining an open, flexible mind. He notes the importance of systematically seeking out different opinions and testing hypotheses. A “challenge network” of people of diverse views can be a great asset, offering advice on which ideas need rethinking in the face of new evidence. This is an ongoing process but there is also value in a regular “life checkup” to avoid an escalation of commitment to an unproductive path.
Grant suggests questions to ask of yourself and of others. Unlearning and relearning require effort and time, he says, but the benefits are substantial. In the end, what got you to here might not get you to where you need to go.
Digital Finance: Security Tokens and Unlocking the Real Potential of Blockchain
By Baxter Hines
Wiley, $50, 208 pages, ISBN 9781119756309
Blockchain technology has enormous potential but so far it has not really broken through to the general public. Hines, a manager of portfolios consisting of traditional assets, securitised properties, and digital assets, believes that this will change with the broad adoption of security tokens. Such tokens, he argues, will address the security concerns of blockchain and the complexity of blockchain systems, the main constraints to date.
Put simply, a security token is a digital device that authenticates a person’s identity electronically by storing personal information. The owner plugs the security token, such as a usb, into a system to grant access to a network service. In the blockchain context, a security token can be loaded with value from nearly any source, allowing for safe, instantaneous transactions. The blockchain connectivity and security measures are embedded in the token itself.
Companies like IBM, Fidelity Investments, and AXA are already deploying blockchain and tokenised options, and many others are gearing up for the change. But there will need to be an education program to explain the system to retail investors. There is still some way to go but blockchain-linked security tokens are likely to eventually become a key part of the financial landscape.
Nothing is Too Big to Fail: How the Last Financial Crisis Informs Today
By Kerry Killinger and Linda Killinger
Simon & Schuster, $22, 568 pages, ISBN9780795353031
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the financial system was developing dangerous cracks, according to the authors of Nothing Is Too Big To Fail. As senior bankers with experience on the regulatory side, they study the financial meltdown of 2008 for lessons. While regulators have done much to strengthen the banking system there has been an alarming growth in the ‘shadow’ finance system of pension funds, disintermediated loan providers, and even technology corporates. The outcome has been an alarming increase in debt, built around speculative bubbles in the stock market and the real estate sector. Killinger and Killinger see comparable troubles in China, abetted by a lack of transparency in government decisions.
There is also the constant problem of Washington’s spiralling spending on social programs and tax cuts. In an appendix to the book the authors discuss the stimulus packages connected to the pandemic, which might have been necessary but made the US economy even more leveraged and fragile.
Dealing with these problems will involve hard decisions, with an emphasis on paying down debt at all levels and extending regulatory oversight further into the non-bank finance sector. It will be a tough haul but it would be better than the alternatives.
Sustainability Accounting and Accountability (3rd edition)
By Matias Laine, Helen Tregidga and Jeffrey Unerman
Taylor & Francis, $105, 300 pages, ISBN 9781032023106
This book is designed as a textbook for advanced students but would be of interest to any finance professional who wants to know more about sustainability reporting. Nearly all large corporates now have some form of sustainability reporting, according to the authors, but there is a great variety of purpose, substance, format and utility. Lane, Tregidga and Unerman review the various frameworks available, especially the Global Reporting Initiative and the Task Force for Climate-Related Financial Disclosure. These are useful but each company has to tailor its reporting to the specific circumstances and the demands of its stakeholders. The authors support moves towards standards and guidelines but they argue that regulation in this area requires a light touch.
There are chapters dealing with specific issues such as accounting for climate change and weather events, biodiversity, water management, human rights and inequality. Reporting about these issues should not only deal with recent activities but future challenges and strategies for meeting them.
Lane, Tregidga and Unerman believe that there is still much work to do in this area but they see progress being made. In any case, sustainability reporting will continue to be a growing field. After all, what gets measured gets managed.
Winter in Sokcho By Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) Open Letter, 160 pages, $14.95
For bi-racial people there can be a sense of dislocation, of being in a culture but not completely of it. The feeling looms large in the novel Winter in Sokcho. Both Dusapin and the un-named narrator are French-Korean, looking for roots they might never really find. If there is an aura of alienation there is also a sense of heightened observation, the awareness that comes from being the outsider looking in.
The setting is the town of Sokcho, on the eastern coast of South Korea, not far from the border with North Korea. In the summertime Sokcho is a bustling seaside resort; in winter it is desolate and half-frozen, a town waiting for time to pass. Likewise, the narrator, who works as the manager-cook at a faded, rundown guesthouse, is waiting. But for what? She does not know. Her social life consists of a desultory relationship with a boyfriend who wants to move to Seoul and tetchy contact with her mother, who runs a fish stall. When the boyfriend departs she does not even say goodbye.
Her equilibrium – or perhaps stagnation – is upset by the arrival of Kerrand, a French artist (he draws severely aesthetic comic books) who is looking for inspiration. He asks her to show him around, which she does, in a half-hearted way. There is not much to see, and little to talk about. Even a trip to the border with North Korea reveals only a bare landscape, with a shroud of fog. But her interest in him grows. Perhaps she sees in him the French father she never knew, perhaps he represents a means for her to move out of her ever-deepening rut.
Or maybe he is a way for her to simply make a decision. In this way she represents the fundamental questions facing South Korea: whether to be a country that looks forward or one that looks back, whether it is Western or Asian, whether it will be a peacemaker or a warrior. This ambiguity is summed up in a scene where the narrator’s mother makes her buy a traditional hanbok dress for Seollal, the Korean New Year. The narrator agrees to wear it but comments that it makes her look obese.
What she wants is to be truly seen, for herself and not as a social oddity. And in the end, her wish is granted, in a conclusion that is quietly satisfying, as well as a bit surprising.
All this is told in poetic, crystalline prose, and it is no wonder that the novel won two prestigious prizes, the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine Desforges. Translating it from the original French must have been a trial but Higgins has captured the sense of detail and division that defines both the setting and the central character.
We have all known a Sokcho, we have all felt that complex sense of wanting to leave and needing to stay. Dusapin has captured that here, in a novel that is both intimate and beautiful.
Digital Transformation in Accounting By Richard Busulwa and Nina Evans Routledge, $74, 284 pages
The field of digitisation is growing fast and this book would be useful to anyone in the finance profession who wants to improve their capabilities, even though it is aimed primarily at advanced students. Digitisation adds a new dimension to the finance/IT nexus, opening novel opportunities as well as challenges for accountants.
Busulwa and Evans are senior academics at Australian universities and they keep the Australian experience of digitisation in mind. They unpack the key concepts and explain how traditional accounting information systems can be integrated with digital transformation. They illustrate their points with relevant case studies and finish each chapter with tests and exercises, as well as a ‘Google and reflect’ section.
This is important material but the real value of the book is in the concluding sections, where Busulwa and Evans take a dive into the direction of digital technologies. They examine IoT, machine learning and Big Data management, with a focus on where accountants can add value. There is also a framework for ongoing learning and tools for staying ahead of the curve. The authors write with admirable clarity, so it adds up to a good package, and a timely guide on where the digitisation path is leading.
Unbias: Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work By Stacey Gordon Wiley, $42, 256 pages
Building a diverse, equitable workforce is no easy task, as Gordon, CEO of a company specialising in the area, makes clear. But companies that make a point of encouraging diversity tend to perform better, especially in innovation and market response. The central problem is that recruiters and managers, like all people, have a natural ‘affinity bias’ and generally prefer those like themselves in race, gender, background and outlook. In most cases, says Gordon, this is an unconscious process, and there is a further level of difficulty due to managers asserting that they are blind to race/gender/background and just want the best person. That is a dangerous claim, says Gordon, and she suggests way to collect data on hiring and promotion decisions to get the true picture.
This can lead to conversations that are difficult but necessary. It can also mean some painful self-examination for senior executives. Gordon offers a set of tools to guide this journey, including questions to ask and procedures to establish.
A drawback with Unbias is that a good deal of it relates to the American experience, especially with race. However, there are universal lessons here that make this book useful to recruiters and managers anywhere.
Anjali Sud is the CEO of Vimeo, a global video posting and sharing platform with over 200 million users, a position she took up at the age of 33. In this TED Talk, she explains her views about balancing a formal role with informal communication, especially when providing feedback. The CEO role is more about enabling others than being a ‘doer’, although it is important to have demonstrated outstanding competence in previous roles. Another essential is to appoint good people, including ones who disagree with you. The more power you hold, she emphasises, the more accountable you need to be.
Ransomware attacks are on the rise, according to data from the Australian Cyber Security Centre. Corporations are the most common targets but individuals, SMEs and government agencies have also been hit. The ACSC has a section devoted to the problem, with advice on preventative measures and examples of recent incidents. Paying a ransom to unlock your devices or files is very unwise, as it will almost certainly lead to repeat attacks and further demands.
The ACSC site includes a useful video on ransomware attacks as well as practical guides on how to respond to an attack and how to report one.
The Business Women Australia site provides a wealth of information and services. It focuses on leadership, business improvement, professional growth, and networking. Its services include a podcast series, an online magazine, coaching options, and a wide selection of events held around the country. There is an Insights section of articles (connected to the magazine) provided by women with specialist expertise: the pieces on book-keeping myths and supporting remote workers are especially interesting. The BWA emphasis is consistently on the useful and the practical. There is a subscription/membership service but the site offers plenty of advice for occasional guests as well.
Artificial Intelligence, blockchain and proactive cybersecurity offer quantum leaps in efficiency and productivity. The current problem is finding people with expertise in these areas. Recruitment firm Michael Page and the Economic Development Board of Singapore have released their joint report Humans of AI: Innovations and Hiring Trends in APACwhich explores the issues in Australia and south-east Asia.
The report looks at the specific skills needed, noting the need for cross-disciplinary knowledge. Creativity and problem-solving is as important as technical skills. Many companies will need to improve their talent management strategies to locate, recruit and retain the people they need.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects and releases huge amounts of data, ranging from the national accounts to the economic impact of COVID-19. Despite the volume of material the site is easy to navigate, and there are sections dealing with industry sectors and trends. There are also tools such as Microbuilder which allow users to draw off data sets to create comparative tables or graphs. This can be used to add depth to a presentation or research report.
Aside from this, the ABS offers a Consultancy Service where specialised data and information can be requested (although there is a cost).
Appearing in the Australian/Review – September 2021
The Colour Code: why we see red, feel blue and go green By Paul Simpson Profile, $28, 352 pages, ISBN 9781781256268
If journalist Simpson is to be believed, the idea for this book began when he went to work wearing a yellow suit – and was firmly told not to do it again. It started him thinking about where the social conventions surrounding colours came from, and prompted him to take a deep dive into the meaning and mechanics of colours. The result is a compendium of hundreds of stories, opinions and scientific snippets, arranged in eleven colour-coded chapters. It answers questions such as why the sky is blue (a phenomenon known as ‘scattering’, connected to the refractive wavelength of atmosphere, apparently) to where the colouring in lipstick comes from (bugs, mainly) to why white paint often contains a touch of blue (which, paradoxically, makes it appear whiter).
Simpson emphasises that the meaning of a given colour varies across cultures and contexts. In many Asian countries, for example, red is associated with money, luck and prestige. In the West, it often signifies anger, violence and evil. But not always: it is also used to highlight female attractiveness. An academic study (conducted by researchers with too much time on their hands, presumably) found that waitresses who wore red received more tips than those who did not.
Most red dye is based on cochineal, which comes from a parasitic insect found in central and South America. It is used in food, medicine – red painkillers are seen as more effective than blandly-coloured ones – and cosmetics. Simpson notes: “The fact that cochineal beetles aren’t particularly photogenic has helped prolong the trade. Imagine the outcry if pandas had to die to make lipstick.”
Green is now tied to the natural environment but that was not always the case. In the past it was associated with financial failure, and in seventeenth century France bankrupts had to wear a green bonnet. Green boats are widely believed to be ill-fated, although the reason for the superstition is unclear. In the Middle Ages, Lucifer was often depicted as green-skinned, as were aliens in 1960s sci-fi movies. The US currency, the ‘greenback’, was originally printed in green because the colour was thought to denote stability, and because green ink was cheap.
Most pigments originally came from plants, minerals or natural oxides. The first artificial pigment was Prussian Blue, discovered accidentally in 1702. The dark richness of it had a huge impact on the development of art, and Simpson tracks it from European painting to Japanese prints. A variety of other vivid pigments followed, although some had the disadvantage of being toxic.
Blue is the colour that more people name as their favourite than any other, although they usually mean the sky-ish variety. There is disagreement among colour theorists as to why, but everyone accepts that it usually makes people feel good. It is widely used in corporate branding, and the artist Wassily Kandinsky likened blue tones to the notes produced by a cello or double bass.
But strangely there is also the reference of ‘feeling blue’. Simpson thinks this might be connected to the idea of ‘blue devils’ seen during alcohol withdrawal. Blue also has an association with pornography, perhaps because smutty books were sometimes printed on blue paper in the nineteenth century.
Purple, on the other hand, is the colour of royalty, and there are many paintings of kings, emperors, and pretentious princelings in dark purple drapery. But the colour’s insipid cousin, mauve, is a different story. It was once decried as the colour of choice for women trying to look younger than their age, and Oscar Wilde quipped that a woman who wears mauve should not be trusted.
Another variety of purple, lavender, was associated with homosexuality, as a combination of girl-pink and boy-blue. Once used derisively, it was later adopted by the gay community as an ironic badge of honour.
At the other end of the preference scale, few people like brown, although artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens made good use of it. This general antipathy was utilised by the Australian government in 2012 when it decreed that cigarette packaging had to use a drab brown known as Pantone 448 C. Research suggested that it made people think of death, dirt and tar, so it was probably an appropriate choice for an anti-smoking campaign. There is not much evidence that it was successful but the affair underlines the evocative nature of colours.
The Colour Code adds up to an entertaining, surprisingly informative piece of work that might even change the way we see the things around us. And we have Simpson’s yellow suit to thank. But hopefully that garment will stay in the closet, forever. There are some things that the world simply does not need to see.
This is a story that my wife doesn’t know about. It is actually a story – one among many, I think – about her mother. Although Kim Soon-joo is my mother-in-law, my sie omeoni, I have always called her Oma. She is 85 years old and she has lived in South Korea all her life.
The story starts, as much as any story can have a beginning, when we were driving back with Oma after taking her out for lunch. We had been to a place overlooking the Han. For Oma’s benefit I had the car radio tuned to one of the silver stations. A song in English came on. It was called My Heart Cries For You.
From the back seat Oma tapped me on the shoulder. “Turn up,” she said. I did.
I could see that she was listening quite intensely, a faraway look in her eyes. Eventually, she said: “I used to sing this song.”
“To your children?” I said.
She gave a little laugh. “I used to sing in nightclub,” she said. “When young.”
Uh, what? Nightclub?
She glanced at her daughter, my wife Hye-Jun, in the seat next to me. Hye-Jun was fiddling with her phone, not listening. “Najung,” Oma said to me, softly. Later.
We had tea with Oma at her little apartment. Then she sent Hye-Jun to the store for something or other.
She gestured that I should come with her. In her room she asked me to get a box from a high shelf in her wardrobe. I did; it was dusty with age, had not been touched for years, perhaps decades.
She opened it. There were old photographs and yellowed papers. She extracted a black-and-white photograph and handed it to me.
It was Oma, standing in front of a little band: a guitarist, a drummer, and an accordion player. She was wearing a rather low-cut, slinky dress. I have to say that she looked pretty good in it.
I should say that I have only known Oma for about five years. That is, I have only known her as an old woman, white-haired and bent over. I never knew her husband, Hye-Jun’s father, he passed before I came to Korea. But I knew that he had been a colonel who had won medals in the Korean War, especially at the time of the Battle of the Han River.
So it was a shock to see her young and beautiful. And … a singer? In a nightclub?
She pointed to the words written on the drum. The Koala Club Singers. The photo was a publicity shot.
There was a date at the bottom. 1951. Which meant she would have been sixteen at the most.
“Nightclub for Australians,” she said. “Like you. Hoju-saram. But many Korean officers there as well. During war.”
She handed me another photograph. It had obviously been taken in the Koala Club. It was a young Korean officer and a man wearing the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy. They were smiling, laughing, holding empty soju glasses on their heads. Great friends, the sort of friends you can only make under fire.
Oma pointed at the RAN man. “Hoju-saram,” she said. “Australian. From ship called Murchison. It was very brave ship. Sailed right up the Hangang to shoot at the Northerners and the Chinese.”
Yes, I remembered the story, there was a note about it at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. HMAS Murchison was a frigate, it engaged in a series of artillery duels with shore batteries entrenched on the northern side of the river. It sat in a part of the Han known as Sitting Duck and fired everything it had. Took some hits but gave better than it got. Tough ship. It gave the retreating RoK troops and the UN soldiers time to withdraw in reasonably good order. Held back the tide, for a while at least.
I suddenly realised that, when we had had lunch earlier that day, we had been looking at the place where the Murchison had stood and fought. Of course, the river had flowed on. But some things should be remembered.
“His name was Jackson,” said Oma. “Was wounded later, in a battle. On the Murchison.”
I pointed at the Korean man. “Who?” I said.
She gave a smile. “He would become husband,” she said. “He would come and see me sing whenever he could. He wanted to marry me. My parents did not like. But when he came back as an officer, and with medals, they could not refuse. He was on Murchison for a while to translate and assist.
“He said to me, years later, that he tried to contact Jackson in Hoju. But he had died.”
She stared at the photograph for a long time. A little tear ran down her cheek.
“Oma,” I said. “Please sing the song. Please sing My Heart Cries For You.”
She was quiet for a long time. Then, at first softly, but growing louder, she sang, in a sweet clear voice. My heart cries for you.
She finished the song. Gently, she put her hand on mine. I don’t think she had ever told anyone else about this.
“Gam sahab nida, Oma,” I said.
“Gam sahab nida,” she said.
We returned the photographs to the box and I put it back on the shelf.
From the other room, there was the sound of the door opening. Hye-Jun, back from the store.
“Don’t tell,” whispered Oma. “About nightclub. She doesn’t know.”