2020-01-18

Holiday reading, book 7: Goodbye to Berlin (Christopher Isherwood)

The last of 2019/20 summer holiday reading was a wonderful little book about which I have known for a long time but was prompted to read it by a friend having recently mentioned it recently. The writing is wonderful, the stories whimsical and sad (since everyone knows what is coming in the 1930s) but also sweet and amusing.

The book consists of more-or-less separate stories with interrelated characters and plots. My favourite character is probably Bernhard Landauer, ostensibly based on the real-life Wilfrid Israel. The Landauers in the book own a department store (like the Israels in reality) in Berlin and one of the poignant scenes is where the main character goes to the shop in search of Bernhard just as the SA starts the boycott of Jewish-owned businesses. He describes himself and others entering the huge shop as the men stand outside with the placards, just as in the picture shown here, outside the Israel shop in Berlin. The SA men look faintly ridiculous, almost bored and definitely very boring. And then all of the rest happened.

Delightful details of pre-wat Berlin pepper the book, such as paying tolls on the AVUS motorway to Grunewald. This first motorway, the construction of which was started prior to World War I, was completed by private investors and remained private until 1940. Some of these details are in the German but not the English entry on Wikipedia. One of the innovations of the road was that it horses would not be allowed.

Read this book on holiday or on a rainy Saturday! In case you did not know, Isherwood was a cousin of the other wonderful English writer, Graham Greene.

2020-01-14

Holiday reading, book 6: HATE – Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship (Nadine Strossen)

Nadine is a veteran president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and thoughtful and principled law professor whom I have had the good fortune to meet on a few occasions i.a. in New York at a reception in their beautiful apartment. Her stance on this topic is relatively well known but I am very pleased that she has written this book in which she brilliantly explains and champions the US view on "hate speech", based on the First Amendment. Over the past half a century, the ACLU has defended the free speech rights of some quite objectionable parties, for which they (and she) have my great respect.

She quotes former President Obama quite a few times and I am relieved to hear that he has such a solid comprehension of at least the First Amendment to the US constitution. Now, the statement that I have just made is an example of the kind of speech that would be absolutely protected in the USA but perhaps not in Singapore, the Soviet Union or either the South Africa of BJ Vorster or that of Nelson Mandela as I might be insulting the gentleman's dignity.

On several occasions the author refers to the abuse of hate speech (by which I assume she includes the abominable notion of crimen iniuria) in both old and new South Africa. She does not discuss this much further but what is interesting for me is that our special courts dealing with these issues now order perpetrators to actually pay compensation to the victims. Of course, the first order for compensation based mainly on the utterance of a specific word by a White person towards a Black one, was made in Ciliza v Minister of Police and Another in 1976 – on the basis of it constituting that very South African offense of crimen iniuria.

Fact is not a defense for crimen iniuria in SA but I learned from the book that several jurisdiction also disallow factuality as a defense in modern "hate speech" cases. In fact, in the Netherlands, there are verboten (I am, again, testing the boundaries) questions. Several other chilling examples from Europe make it into the book as does the somewhat silly (ditto) prosecution of poor Bob Dylan in France on the basis of a complaint by the Council of Croats in France in the same month that he was admitted to the légion d'honneur.

The dark history of "hate speech" restrictions is clearly illustrated in the book and the author points out that in Weimer Germany the prosecution of anti-semitic "hate speech" was in fact quite common. What I did not know is that in the past few years, US campus restrictions on speech have in fact frequently been used against racial minority groups.

In the US, it is clear that if the intention is imminent serious harm then the speech is not protected and furthermore restrictions should satisfy viewpoint neutrality. The book well explains the history of this in jurisprudence and for a lay reader like myself it is very convincing.

I loved the book but I have always been a fan of the US constitution and you have to be a bit legally inclined to make it through the book. It can easily be read in one day and would leave you ample time for other hobbies.

Image borrowed from somewhere – use here presumed to be allowed under SA copyright law.

2020-01-13

Vakansieleesstof, boek 5: Secondhand Time – The Last of the Soviets (Svetlana Alexievich)

Twyfelagtige leesstof vir 'n vakansie, het ek gevoel na 20 bladsye. Maar ek wou nie die boek in my bagasie hê nie en ek kon nie ophou lees nie. Alexievich is 'n letterkundige Nobel-pryswenner wat aan die hand van 'n hele paar dosyn vertellings (hoofsaaklike eerstehands) die geskiedenis van die Sowjetunie, sy verval, die harwarjare en die opkoms van die nuwe orde beskryf.

Daar is nie baie snaaks daarin nie, met die uitsondering van 'n paar juwele van die Russiese galgehumor. Sy is ook nie skaam om te beskryf wat vir haar en ander lekker was in die sosialistiese tyd nie, ook nie om weer te gee dat mense (jonk en oud eerder as middeljarig) 'n hunkering terug het na die Stalin-tyd nie. Eerstehandse vertellings van selfs sy slagoffers se heldeverering vir hom is treffend. Tog is dit nie net 'n boek oor politiek nie. Dit vertel ook van die alledaagse (soms mooi) en gewone menslike stories wat afspeel teen die agtergrond van die Sowjet-stelsel.

Die woord "salami" kom verbasend dikels in die boek voor – ek skat minstens op elke vyfde bladsy. Die ander kleinigheid wat my sal bybly is dat die Russiese weermag tot in die tweede dekade van die 21ste eeu "portjanki" (basies, voetdoeke) gedra het eerder as kouse.

Hierdie boek is vir die sterk leser wat 'n goed ontwikkelde belangstelling het in Rusland en die Sowjetunie. Of vir iemand wat nodig het om te hoor dit was elders erger. Baie erger. Ek leen 'n foto by die New York Times hiervoor (ietwat uitgeknip) omdat die outeur oulik en gaaf lyk, in teenstelling met haar onderwerp.

Holiday reading, book 4: Bank 4.0 – Banking Everywhere, Never at a Bank (Brett King)

For anyone at all interested in banking or technology, this book is compulsory reading. I am normally easily bored by discussions of technological developments with which I am familiar but King takes it all and wraps it up in a narrative which is compelling and to the point. His intimate familiarity with the traditional banking business allows him to make astute observations about how organisations function and what the dangers are in failing to adept to the one-swipe-right-now world of the digital native.

The author is particularly clear about the best way for banks to work with FinTech's – cooperate (cheapest and fastest) or acquire rather than duplicate in-house. He mentions some sobering examples of the latter. There are also many fun things such as the Emirates NBD Shake n’ Save [sic] product which lets you put away a fixed amount for a rainy day by shaking your phone. Other interesting morsels included a reference to ERMA project at Bank of America in the early 1950s which introduced account numbers. Yes, account numbers.

One of the great questions King proposes should be asked in the banking "C-suite" is whether the head of digital outranks the head of branches. My feeling is that sometimes there is not even a head of digital delivery (experience) but there would be a head of branches. What this says, I do not really know. In his taxonomy, many banks are really stuck in "Banking 2.5" which means they do a lot of things on their app but the digital channel is still (except for challenger banks) a bit of an add-on.

Incidentally, he talks about "false positives" for branch use which does cover all branch use in my case – e.g. when you go there to pick up a card because it is going to simply take too long to give your address over the phone to the courier and the bank simply did not get around to giving your address to the courier. Why my bank does not get the delivery address form the app, I would not know... The head of branches probably decided that phoning worked well in 1985 so it should work now.

I took dozens of photographs from the book of things that I wanted to follow up or check. Like many modern books, the editorial quality is not what it should be – any author can write "Netflix" when they mean "Blockbuster" but it is the job of a good editor or critical reader to pick this up. Some of the graphs are not readable in grayscale and I had a hard copy so I do not know where one would find the original colour graphics.

If you are even remotely interested in banking, do read this book!

2020-01-09

Holiday reading, book 3: Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (Jared Diamond)

A heavy but attractively typeset and bound tome by an author that has really influence my thinking about the world and its history a fair bit. The author is now in his 80s and reflects on 7 countries which he knows well, mainly through having lived in them and learning the language. In this respect, it is very personal and touching since the wisdom and insight proceeding from affectionate observation transmit well.

The introduction frames the study well using the psychology of personal crisis with reference to the effect of the Cocoanut [sic] Grove fire in 1940s Boston on the development of crisis therapy. The author provides a theoretical framework for the historical discussion using the psychology of personal crisis management. Since we have all at some or other point had one, this makes it seductively easy to relate to the subject material.

For me, Finland was a particularly interesting chapter and only in part since I visited the country for the first time in 2019 and have so far been only casually familiar with the history of it. Diamond shares my appreciation for language and in this respect treats the role of the unique and somewhat complicated Finnish tongue very well. I also found his treatment of the United States helpful and interesting and those not familiar with some of the partisanship currently in vogue there, might find this a useful guide. On Japan, Indonesia and Chile, he has been excellent.

If I had two wishes about the book, it might be to have Germany disappear from it. The opposite was, incidentally, my view on the first book that I read on holiday – The Square and the Tower (Niall Ferguson). Diamond treats the socio-historical development of modern Germany well and sympathetically and I think these are all things that people need to know. However, I felt that it did not fit the framework and case studies of the remainder of the book.

My second wish would be to have Israel in it since the country has faced numerous crises (not least of all, at its birth) and I believe that it has adapted culturally and institutionally in unique and interesting ways. I think it would have fit well with the rest of the book.

The book is relatively light but pleasant reading and skipping chapters at will should not be a problem. Thank you, Jared!