April 11, 2015

Book: Lords of Finance by Liaqat Ahmed

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:17 pm

imageStarts very well with Collet Normal DSO, who was the chief of the Bank of England and his nervous breakdown in 1931.

This follows the life of four central bankers (Britain, France, Germany and US) through the Great Depression and the consequent Second World War. Well told story.  The personalities of each is explained before we learn what they do.

The Gold Standard and why it came to be are explained well as well.

Fun facts emerge. For instance, Lloyds of London had insured German tanks and ships so that, in 1912, a British committee was stunned to find out that in the event of a war with Germany, Lloyds would have to compensate Kaiser for the loss of ships or military gear caused by British action! The collective wisdom of that time was that nations were so interlinked in trade that a war was impossible !

The British central banker Montagu Norman’s personal characteristics are very interesting. Unmarried, rich, and very influential but living a spartan life. He is weird, and has personal illnesses including several nervous breakdowns. Goes off in the middle of his work to recover, often for several weeks.

Horace Schacht was the German central banker who is one of the four described. He grew up doing various jobs and was brilliant and ambitious, fired by a determination to be as different as possible from a father, who was a failure.

The third man was Benjamin Strong in US. An employee of Pierpoint Morgan, who was of such legendary influence in financial circles. His wealth was unknown and when he died, proved to be $80 Million (We are talking 1910 dollars!). John D Rockefeller, who was worth about $1 billion in the same money shook his head and said, “And to know that he was not even rich!”

Benjamin himself was not rich but married into a rich family and had a lavish lifestyle on his salary. If he became President of New York Feds he stood to make a fraction of the money.  Emile Moreau is his French counterpart.

The fourth is the French Emile Moreau.

The description of the hyperinflation in Germany are shocking. You thought Zimbabwe’s a few years ago was really bad? You thought the Italian Lira which charged something like a thousand Lira for a coffee (before they chucked it all to join the Euro) was bad? This was far worse! Money was printed in truckloads and people were carrying it in trolleys and baby carts to buy necessities. While you were drinking coffee, the price of it doubled! Butter cost 250 billion Marks, one US dollar fetched 630 billion Marks. Try that for size. No wonder people were extremely frustrated no wonder this, compounded with the pressure of reparations (insisted upon by two fanatical Britishers, not the French who suffered the most in World War I, as the author describes it. ) caused so much angst, no wonder society was chaotic with attacks by ruffians, no wonder even the newfangled fanatic idea called  Nazism did not seem to be such a bad thing.

Keynes, that genius of economics also is intimately involved, though you learn many surprising things about him – he was not impressive to look at and had a very big chip about his looks – he also lost and made money in currency trading, then a new thing. He loved and married a trampy woman who was much married and was given to terrible gaffes with the English language.

The formation of the Federal Reserve with oversight by political persons with no training in finance and thus Strong’s total domination of the Fed are told well. He saw that bond buying and selling by the government is a more effective way to control prices and exchange rate than interest rate hikes and dips, especially in the post gold standard world. But his arrogance, his taking decisions without explaining to anyone caused heartburn and even worse, confusion among other members of the Central Bank.

History told from the Central Banker view means that Hitler’s putsch is almost told as a hearsay.

The insistence of US that Britain return the gold standard and the resistance to both the plan and Norman, who supports these plans are well told. What is interesting is Churchill’s description. He becomes the Chancellor of Exchequer (Finance Minister in any other country!). He was not popular. He switched parties twice (Tory to Liberal and back) based on whom political winds favoured. He was seen as crass, had expensive tastes and was perpetually in debt and by his own admission, ‘knew nothing of finance or economics’. In addition, he surrounded himself with very shady characters and after a brilliant start in important party positions at just the age of 35, he faded away and languished in the sidelines, ignored until he reached fifty, when he became the Chancellor. And he was brought in by the Prime Minister because the latter wanted to keep him close and keep an eye on him and did not trust him to be part of the party but not the cabinet, where he can brew mischief.

Go figure.

The description of William Crapo Durant, the school dropout who founded General Motors, is also very interesting. He was a hustler and GM became great only when he sold it off to a wealthy dynasty in US. He reinvented himself as a kind of currency expert (old time hedge fund manager before that term was invented!)

The depression was in full swing and Edgar Hoover, the President of US was in full denial. Russia sold some of its paintings, in secret, to its capitalist enemy, the US.

Parallels of current depression are striking. Also, due to gold standard funny positions emerged. All gold was in a vault but “earmarked” as French or US and the recession is due to some parts of the same room having more gold than other parts!

The French apathy and its self-centred attempts to retain its politico economic supremacy over the ruins of other European nations is well told. The conditions where banks had to close for three weeks with complete chaos in industry in Germany help provide one more reason as to  why Nazis rose to power.

Britain’s struggle and the decision to go off the gold standard, onto which it should not have gone anyway, is well told. The panic and the disaster spreading across the world is described in vivid detail.

We learn about Roosevelt taking over in the deepest crisis and with Hoover’s men, solving the issue in ten days when Hoover could not in three months. We also learn about Roosevelt  not cooperating with Hoover until he really took charge and could properly take credit for resolving the issue.

Further, Roosevelt shocks his own advisors by going off the gold standard when US had the largest reserves of gold. He seems to have had an intuitive feel for the right thing. Roosevelt did arbitrary increases in spending to shock the US economy out of its downward spiral against expert opinion and it worked!

Schacht collaborated with the Nazis, even writing a grovelling eulogy to Hitler and then later denied any involvement. To be fair, he was not part of the Nazi military circle but allowed himself to be used to provide a veneer of respectability to the regime and was jailed at the end by Hitler since he seems to have plotted to overthrow the Nazis. But when freed and arrested by the Allies, he was “surprised” and soon after, died.

Norman seems to have carried on, losing almost all of his credibility and finally dies as well.

Keynes wrote his seminal work and saw his fame spread high before his death. He made, unmade and remade his fortunes and died a rich man, after seeing the fixed currency system of Bretton Woods in place in collaboration with White, the Treasury Secretary. White himself was the highest ranking finance official and created the system of international payments but he was a Soviet spy from 1935! He even delayed aid to Kai Shang Shek of Korea, allowing China to occupy half of Korea in aid to communism. When unmasked (soon after the death of Keynes) he also suffered a heart attack and died.

Ironic that a Soviet spy was given the control to negotiate IMF and Bretton Woods system and decide how much each country (including the Soviets) can borrow etc.

The epilog is excellent, comparing the cataclysm to the recent crises (the post 2000 dotcom bust, the Mexican crisis, the Latin American and Asian crisis of the nineties, and the latest recession starting in 2008.

Nice story. Many eye opening moments. Well written. Sound economic principles.  Let us say 7/10

– – Krishna


Movie: It Follows (2014)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:03 pm

imageThis was shown in the Toronto International Film Festival and created so much buzz that it was brought back to mainstream cinemas later in the year. Well sort of, because at least in Toronto, it was running in only one theatre downtown.

The story is interesting. Let me tell you what it is, and then we can review what my impressions of the movie is.

It has the feel of a movie aimed at teenage and twenties audience because it is about a bunch of girls & boys still in school. The main character is a young girl named Jay Height who has sex in a car with her new boyfriend Hugh. There is a scene where he sees a girl standing at the entrance that Jay cannot seem to see. After sex he uses chloroform to make her unconscious and she finds herself tied to a chair when she wakes up. (No, this is not another Fifty Shades of Grey, far from it.)

He explains that there is an entity (called “IT” ) that comes after people and kills them. The only way to escape is to have sex with someone after which the entity will follow the person whom you had sex with. It apparently can follow only one person for the some reason. It also always comes as a person – any person whom you have or have not met. (We can save on special effects if the entity appears to be a normal person, right?). It can only come walking – always.

But there is a catch. (‘Another one?’ you go). If the person whom you had sex with is killed by it, it follows the person up the chain – you – and comes after you. So you better have sex with someone else to deflect it again. Another “feature” is that, while no one else can see it, you can, if you are up the chain. From a technical point of view, you are in a tree structure, really, and it keeps destroying the nodes from leaves upwards towards the root. (Sorry could not resist the reference).

Well, Hugh explains it and lo and behold, a naked woman is coming straight at Jay. Hugh releases her and runs off and she runs in panic. Thus starts a game of chase, where she is running from the entity which everyone cannot see but Jay can.

Her sister Kelly, friend Yara, and another friend who has had a lifelong crush on her, Paul, decide to help her. So does a neighbouring kid called Greg. He “bravely” offers to have sex with Jay, so that he will be in the path of the entity, and Jay accepts, much to the dismay of Paul.

When Greg gets killed, Jay is in the sights of IT again and desperately the four kids decide to confront and kill it. What happens next is till the end of the movie.

There are certainly some interesting moments. The scene in the beach where they cannot see IT (who comes as Kelly in Jay’s sights) and where the real Kelly comes and swings a chair at where it is supposed to be and breaks the chair apparently in mid-air is interesting.

So is the climax scene where they realize that except Jay no one can see IT and how they solve that problem is also interesting.

But you can pick barn door sized holes in the plot. For instance, Hugh says that a girl gave it to him (and implies that he had sex with someone else to get rid of IT and she must have died, which is why he saw the girl in the theatre and had to run and have sex with Jay). He does not know who that girl is, he says. Then how does he know all about IT? Did she leave a manual when she left?

Also, they shoot IT right through the heart in the beach scene and it seems to just get up and come after them. Yet, in another scene it is implied that the thing is dead. Huh? Silver bullets, like you do for werewolves?

This can get complicated with all the promiscuity implied in the movie, how can IT keep track of who is the next victim if there are parallel leaves in the tree structure?

And there is an unnecessary references to incest where the parents come naked (or IT comes naked as parents, and in one case, after killing the child, seems to want to have sex with the child). Why? It was not even relevant to the main plot!

Why should it walk? How can you recognize IT if it comes as a relative? What the heck is going on here?

And, to top it all off, the dialogs and acting are all mediocre. The movie does not burn into your mind.

Worth watching if you like kiddie targeted movies. Definitely not scary.

The premise is nice but the movie gets only a 5/10

– – Krishna

April 3, 2015

Book: Everything is Eventual by Stephen King

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:18 pm

imageWe have, of course, reviewed many Stephen King books before. See here for details of those.

This book is a collection of short stories. There is an introduction written by Stephen King. Usually he is good at grabbing your interest in the intro but the introduction for this book is a bit disappointing. .

The first story is Autopsy Room Four – This is probably one of the best stories in the book. A ‘corpse’ tells the story. Lovely, how they are about to do an autopsy for him without realizing that he is alive! Since he is paralyzed, but can see everything, the tension is sky high, and you can’t wait to see what happens.

The next story is The Man in A Black Suit – A typical Stephen King brand Devil story where a man in a black suit meets a nine year old boy who has gone fishing alone, and his eyes are burning fire and he smells of sulfur. Cool story, where the devil is not suave or seductive but just wants to devour you straight away!

Next one is All that you love Will Be Carried Away – A salesman checks into a hotel with the intent of killing himself. He is fond of graffitis and collects them. The story is mildly interesting but disappointing, after you finish reading it.

The Death of Jack Hamilton – A gangster story involving Johnie and Jack and a few sidekicks. Except for the fly roping part, everything else sucks about this story. Can Stephen King do boring? Yes, here is the proof.

In the Death Room – Fletcher the journalist is brought to the interrogation room (‘the death room’) after being beaten bloody. Escobar is the chief interrogator and ‘the Bride of Frankenstein’ is his boss. There are thugs kept there and how Fletcher turns the tables on a completely hopeless situation is exhilarating to read. Nice story to read.

The Little Sisters of Eluria – A Dark Tower related story just like the first one in his other collection, Hearts in Atlantis. Here Roland Deschain of Gilead himself appears. He goes to a deserted town – Eluria – exploring. He is captured by green men and wakes up in a white room, tended by sisters in white. Jenna, the beautiful one, shows him who has been curing him. Bugs. What they do to fully cured men is really terrible. They are not humans, Roland realizes. He and his “brother” John are saved by a medallion. His belonged to a dead man he found before he was ambushed.  What they do to healed men is stunning. Story unfolds slowly with us gaining increased understanding and the story gathering momentum and tension, as only King can create when he has got a good story to stick his teeth into. He tries to escape but gets stopped by Sister Mary. In the meanwhile they have killed the other boy by having one of the zombies remove the pendant from the boy. Jenna rescues him and a dog with the mark of ‘Jesus-Man’ on it (a cross) saves both.It is amazing how Jenna disappears when he wakes up and how he sees what happened to her. Pure King material!

Everything is Eventual – This is of course, the title story. Richard (Dink) Earshaw is a college dropout and resigned to a life of Pizza Delivery Boy or equivalent when a mysterious stranger called Sharpton offers him a job in a house where he earns his salary and unbelievable perks – with the proviso that each week, he should fully spend his weekly salary and start next week as a pauper again. But Dink has an interesting secret, he has paranormal powers to kill by writing signs targeted to whomever he wishes to kill! We begin to understand the nature of “work” Dink was offered. His realization and resolution are interesting.

LT’s Theory of Pets – LT Dewitte’s wife Lullubelle (nee Simon) leaves him one day. Takes Frank the dog with her but leaves Lucy (Screwlucy) the cat with him. Then she suddenly disappears on the way to her mother. The dog is found dismembered and there are no traces of her. Interesting. But what really was the point of the story?

The Road Virus Heads North – The Story about the picture that keeps changing. An author picks up a painting in a garage sale and it depicts a driver of a convertible with pointed teeth and evil grin. The picture changes slowly as if the person is traveling northwards in the US.  His hand moves to show a tattoo, his grin widens, his eyes narrow… So he decided to get rid of it by throwing it away and even smashing the frame. But of course it would not go away; it beats him to his own house and hangs on the wall, whole again. And by now, the car has reached the junkyard sale where he bought the picture. The progress is creepy and the end is interesting but expected.

Lunch at the Gotham Cafe – Steve is blindsided by wife Diane who leaves him one day when he is out on work, leaving a note for him to find when he gets home. He goes to Gotham Cafe to meet her and her lawyer against the wishes of his own lawyer who could not attend. There the world goes kaput as the maitre d’ goes mad and goes into a murderous rage, killing everyone in his way but trying to specifically kill Steve.

The Feeling You Can Only Say When It is in French – Carol and Mike are travelling. Carol is prone to premonitions generally. The story is one confusing jumble of back and forth writing (an example is in Hearts in Atlantis) that makes no sense and is boring.

1408 – Hotel room that is supposed to be haunted. Olin, a paranormal debunking writer, rents it for the night.  Wow, what a description! Everything goes wrong and is very creepy to read, where the experience only lasted for about eight minutes. It is very scary, vintage King. Very nice story.

Riding the Bullet – Starts out nice. When he goes out to meet his mother who had a stroke but is recovering, a young student decides to hitchhike. After refusing an offer from an old man who brought him half way to take the rest of the way, next to a cemetary, he hitches a ride with what appears to be a dead man in a Mustang. Well written story and is scary as hell.  The choice offered to him is to choose who should die – he or his mother.  But what follows is confusing and disappointing. What was the point of this story? Yes, it does not end as you would expect but it should have some meaning, right?

Luckey Quarter – The misspelling is deliberate by the author. In these days of inflation, the lucky penny is an anachronism I guess. Otherwise a typical and interesting story of a chambermaid who is poor and struggling, who finds a quarter left as a tip by a hotel guest with the note that it is a “luckey quarter”. What happens to her is interesting. You think it is the old good-luck story and are surprised to find a double twist in the story.

7/10 due to some duds, even though there are some rollicking good stories in this collection.

– – Krishna

Movie: Cindarella (2015)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:53 pm

imageWell, the movie has some good elements, sure, but the reviews on the Internet praise it sky high. Is it worth all that praise? Decide for yourself after reading my arguments as to why or why not.

The movie is not bad, and continues a trend started by Disney to bring all the characters in their earlier (two dimensional) cartoons to life. Witness Maleficent, and perhaps Into the Woods in that category. But there is an important difference. Maleficent looks at the fairy tale from a totally different angle, a la the Broadway play Wicked, and tells the story from the point of view of the evil witch whom you loved to hate in the cartoon version. Into the Woods is a hotchpotch of many fairy tales stuffed together into one story. Here is Cindarella, which is a pure retelling of the fairy tale, with animation coming into the picture only where needed. (On the lines of the other great movie, Enchanted).

Here is a movie where I do not have to describe the storyline! There may be no one in the world who does not know this story! So let us talk about the impressions on seeing the movie. First of all, kudos to the casting director. The cast of Cindarella is spot on. Lily James is a very convincing Cindarella as Amy Adams was in Enchanted. (Let us face it, the character of Giselle in Enchanted is really Cindarella in disguise, right? ) Like Susan Sarandon in Enchanted, Cate Blanchet is an inspired casting as the wicked stepmother. That works very well too. Also believable are the prince (Richard Madden), and the king. Good casting decisions, these. The fairy stepmother (Helena Barnum Carter) jars a bit for me, even if they were going for the playful and slightly off kilter character (shades of the brilliant Genie of their animated Alladin?).

Also interesting are the side stories (invented perhaps? I don’t know. ) of how the wicked stepmother came into the family, the life of Cinderella prior to her mother’s death, and how she got the name Cinderella. Also interesting are the machinations of the Grand Duke to prevent Cindarella from being discovered, in collusion with the stepmother (Lady Tremaine is her name).  Also the scene where the prince was in disguise all along and forces the issue is interesting. As is Cinderella’s question on whether he will take her as she is, and not as he thinks she should be.

It is amusing to find a nod to today’s secular ethos to find multicultural characters in all levels of the ancient society.

The transformation scenes (pumpkins to coach etc) are also well done.

Taken purely on its merits, it is indeed a well done movie. But seeing Cinderella for the n-th time from Disney does not add anything to the experience we have had in watching the previous versions. I was not fully elated when I came out of the theatre. Yes there are tiny twists as mentioned above, but is it enough for the rave reviews? To me, sadly, not.

So I will be content to award it a 6/10

Please let me know if you agree or disagree.

– – Krishna

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