Book Review: Other People’s Money, by John Kay
I picked this up a while ago from the book-swap shelf at work; several years ago I’d read the author’s The Truth About Markets, so I thought this would be worth a go. Written in 2015, this is in many ways a reflection on the financial crisis, but really I think Kay’s point is that the crisis just highlighted things that were already broken in the system.

For many people, it won’t have escaped their attention that some of the problem “banks” – Northern Rock, Bradford & Bingley and HBOS (Halifax) – were formerly Building Societies that demutualised in the 1990s, and for Kay this is a big factor, because it changes the way the assets of these institutions were managed. (RBS is slightly different, but the greed-is-good mentality that led to its disastrous acquisition of ABN Amro follows broadly similar logic). What I hadn’t really grasped before is that most investment banks were, broadly speaking, demutualised only slightly earlier, from the 1970s onwards – previously they had generally been partnerships, with all the liability that implies for the partners themselves. In both cases, demutualisation produced a step-change in attitude to risk – once the ownership of the institution is transformed into equity, the working capital is other people’s money, and is no longer treated with the same care.

But it’s not just about risk; another of Kay’s significant themes is that an awful lot of the activity of banks and financial institutions isn’t useful for the economy; and, by implication, the profit of that activity is at the expense of someone else. The business of managing payments between parties, and stewardship of deposits and loans to businesses and consumers, is necessary and useful; but, according to his theory, the apparently endless trading and re-trading of fragmentary assets and liabilities serves no-one other than the bankers themselves. Kay concludes with some suggestions for reform, but these seem fanciful in the current situation.

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Wait till they get to the bit about ‘Peace on Earth’ then let ’em have it

Book Review: Giles’s War – Cartoons 1939-45, edited by Tim Benson
I think I first became aware of Carl Giles when I received this Christmas card from my Grandmother, which from the catalog must have been around 1980. When I saw this book in the work book sale, it was an easy choice to pick it up. There’s some useful background text from Tim Benson, explaining Giles’ early career and his work during the war. A comment that he didn’t get along well with his official biographer Peter Tory could be interpreted as challenging the competition, but I don’t think that’s the intention here. Most of the book is devoted to cartoons, of course, and they span the whole period from before the outbreak of war to beyond VJ Day. If you like Giles, you’ll like this; if you don’t know Giles, here is the war in quintessentially British humour as depicted by Giles:

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To George from Ann, with all my love

Book Review: The man who was George Smiley – The life of John Bingham, by Michael Jago
As a John le Carré fan, this was an instant selection from the work book sale, though I felt the title seemed familiar from somewhere, so it may have been recommended to me before. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an espionage character, it turns out that the truth of the title’s claim can only be pushed so far. Bingham himself came from Irish aristocratic stock, had an unremarkable education and a life of relative leisure. However, the slow slide of his family’s finances and the aftermath of the First World War meant that he had to actually find a career, and after spending some time in France and Germany, he became a journalist before joining MI5 during the Second World War. This is somewhat unlike Smiley, whose family background is unknown, but distinguishes himself with an Oxford education (including at least implicit recruitment into the Service by his tutor Jebedee), spent time in Germany, and had a “nasty war” (the details of which are never revealed). Bingham’s war – constrained by poor eyesight – was spent in the UK on counter-espionage, investigating the backgrounds of refugees flowing into the UK, uncovering German spies and sympathisers, and managing double agents. Smiley marries into the aristocracy, with Lady Ann Sercomb; for Bingham, that role is reversed. An early episode in which Bingham loses a cigarette lighter seems an obvious model for the meeting in Delhi between Smiley and Karla, though that reference is not made explicit in the book.

After the War, Bingham spent some time in Germany, in the administration of the British sector, then returned to Britain, persuing a career as a journalist and novelist, and also in MI5, where, inter alia, he mentored a certain David Cornwell (aka John Le Carré; the book offers an explanation of the nom de plume that taps Bingham as “the square”). The book goes into some detail on Bingham’s novels, which were modestly successful, though later works didn’t really deliver. When Le Carré’s writing career took off, Bingham recognised himself as Smiley, as did family and colleagues. He didn’t mind, though he took issue with Le Carré’s writing about espionage as a member of the Service. Bingham’s wife, however, did bristle rather at the success enjoyed by Le Carré relative to her husband, and the final chapters of the book do make for rather bitter reading.

A Perfect Spy is widely recognised as being an autobiographical work by Le Carré; but one interesting question that is left unanswered by this book is, does the relationship between Bingham and Cornwell imply that Peter Guillam is a depiction of Le Carré himself in the Smiley books?

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One death is a tragedy …

Earlier this week I went to see The Death of Stalin at Reading Film Theatre. I’d seen posters on the Tube a couple of months ago, which had seemed to build quite a high level of expectation. Could Armando Iannucci’s comic film on the death of a mass murderer possibly live up to its hype?

Continue reading

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It’s the cloud, stupid

Book Review: AWS Lambda in Action, by Danilo Poccia
At work we do regard Amazon as a cloud services provider with a sideline of a bookstore. There’s a push at work to adopt cloud services in general, including where appropriate the “serverless” model. Of course it’s not actually sans server, it’s rather that you, as the developer, don’t control or manage the server.

I find myself wryly amused by the idea that lambda functions are anything new. I can’t really see the difference between them and a stateless EJB in the JavaEE world. They are packaged and accessed differently, and there’s a different cost model associated with them, but at a high level, it’s just a piece of business functionality exposed for access somewhere on the network.

As for the book, well, it seems like a good but limited basic introduction to the AWS Lambda service. There seems to be an irony fail when the author explains that the benefit of serverless is that the developer doesn’t have to worry about infrastructure, then immediately goes on to pebbledash the pages with reams of CloudFormation scripts (which, erm, provision and configure the infrastructure).

Another weak point, for me at least, is that code examples are limited to JavaScript and Python. These are clear and for the most part comprehensible even though I’m only moderately familiar with the former and not at all with the latter, but it would have been nice to have a Java example here or there. Given there are concerns about things like JVM startup time, and that Java servlets were a solution to the slow startup of CGI scripts in the early years of the web, it would be useful to have seen a discussion about whether this is a problem and either how to address it, or to explain how it’s been overcome.

The examples in the book focus partly on authentication services, and partly on an image-sharing application, with integration points between the two. It’s a good and realistic choice of applications, but the experience is a bit disjointed – perhaps that’s inherent in the nature of Lambdas and would more positively be expressed as “decoupled”. In the later sections on management of secrets I found it hard to swallow the example using hard-coded but encrypted passwords. Although I got the idea that AWS permissions would enable the code to decrypt the password at run-time, I still didn’t like the idea that it could be hard-coded into the application. When you need to change that, it should be simple and quick to do so. Even just holding the encrypted data in a protected file on S3 would have made more sense with little additional complexity in the code. In the final sections, the book talks about receiving events from a MongoDB feed, but shies away from actually going into any detail, which leaves the reader a bit deflated.

On the plus side, there is quite a lot of discussion about how Lambdas can be used in conjunction with other AWS services, and this seems quite clear and sensible, although at the cost for the developer of encouraging vendor tie-in. The discussion on Lambda pricing and its consequences is also useful, though obviously subject to change. Overall, I did find this book useful, but not compelling.

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On Saturday we headed out to Dulwich Picture Gallery for their Tove Jansson exhibition. Although it’s a relatively small exhibition space, sometimes I think they squeeze a lot into it, but not so much this time. There are plenty of Moomin pictures and related items, and appropriately Nordic illustrations for Swedish language editions of other works such as The Hobbit, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Hunting of the Snark, but it was Jansson’s paintings such as Mysterious Landscape and The Family and drawings in the first two rooms that I found most striking, as well as a curious miscellany of propaganda works including wartime covers for Garm magazine and, in the last room, poster designs for environmental campaigns.

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How grim is it up North?

On Thursday we went to Reading Film Theatre to see God’s Own Country. If, in Cartman’s immortal words, American independent cinema is all about gay cowboys, then is British independent cinema about gay sheep farmers? I enjoyed the film, but I did find it full of contrivances and contradictions. Johnny is plainly a bit of an idiot, who can barely be trusted with anything in the eyes of his parents, but as his father is incapacitated he has all the responsibility for the work on the farm. Despite this, and living in the middle of nowhere, there’s no shortage of opportunities for casual sex and he also has enough money to get blind drunk most evenings. His mates have all left for university, although some of them have returned for “reading week”. Gheorghe, the “only person who applied for the job” as a farm hand during the lambing season, is a Romanian migrant worker who speaks excellent English, is hard working, knowledgeable about his trade, and even makes sheeps’ milk cheese. No wonder, in this vision of the world, they are “stealing our jobs”. I do feel, in general, we are living the consequences of Blair’s well-intentioned but flawed “education, education, education” mantra. As a member of the liberal metropolitan elite, I don’t claim any expert knowledge of farming. But I have been rambling in the Lake District during the lambing season, and I have quite literally seen ewes giving birth. They don’t, in general, need any human help. The idea that Johnny and Gheorghe are sent to a ruined shack up at the top of the hill for a few nights to keep an eye on the sheep is a fairly obvious plot device – dating, I would say, from at least the time of Virgil – but it seems a bit detached from reality. Another thing that I didn’t find convincing was the scene in which Gheorghe skins a still-born lamb to use its fleece to provide an extra layer of warmth for a weak but live lamb – it seems unlikely to me that you could reasonably do this in plain view of the sheep, nor that the scent of the dead lamb wouldn’t affect either the lamb or its mother – though on the other hand it also reveals a significant difference in the value placed on the weaker livestock by Johnny and Gheorghe. Maybe they do things differently in the Yorkshire Dales; the whole story is laced with grittiness and a suggestion that the farm hasn’t been well run for a long time.

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