Temeraire by Naomi Novik (originally published as "His Majesty's Dragon"). First in a series with a killer concept: alternate history, set in the Napoleonic wars, only with dragons providing an air force. Basically a cross between Aubrey/Maturin and the Dragonriders of Pern.
In tone it's more Anne McCaffrey than Patrick O'Brian: pretty light stuff, but compellingly written: read the first half in a single session. It's briskly paced too, without fantasy-bloat so far. Plot covers meeting, training and initial action as you'd expect.
A couple of minor downsides: beyond the combination there's not a lot that's original here. The characters are adequately drawn but a bit on the bland side.
Also not 100% convinced by the tactics and strategy of dragon warfare. They wear harnesses which airmen and sharpshooters treat like ships rigging, and store bombs harnessed beneath the belly. They fight by clawing at each other, sniping from the soldiers, sometimes boarding, and in a few rare beast by breathing fire or spitting acid.
But Novik wants them to fight like sailing ships: not sure 1805 muzzle-loading weapons would be much use in relative quick aerial warfare, unlike a naval battle where you can slug it out for hours. They fly in close formations so that smaller dragons can protect the heavies, which enemy dragons try to break up. That doesn't seem to make sense since bigger dragons have an advantage: surely you want them to engage the smaller attackers close up. And these tight horizontal formations seem way too vulnerable to attack from above: if you want to protect them, surely the escorts should be higher than the Longwing, so they can turn height into speed diving down to attack the attackers.
However, while they have wings it's mentioned that the dragons have sacs of lighter-than-air gases, so maybe they're more like airships than 'planes, and can't dive fast or move that fast; making ship-tactics more appropriate.
Also not quite sure about Napoleon's big plan to use the Battle of Trafalgar as a naval diversion, drawing the Aerial Corps away so that his dragons can airlift troops over the Channel. Surely without much cavalry and heavy cannon, and supply lines cut once the Corps return, even the Grande Armée would have pretty much screwed. On the other hand, the British militia and army were pretty small and not that great: it might have a brilliant stroke of genius from the Corsican Monster.
Will probably get the next one: the series is up to number 5 now. The Shelfari buzz seems to be that the series declines a bit with the later ones, but fans have been wrong before.
What I'm Reading 2
The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means by George Soros. Bit disappointing. Soros is a highly successful trader, but he regards himself as a bit of a philosopher too. His big idea is that humans, particularly acting in markets, have a cognitive function (what they think) and a manipulative function (what they do). Market bubbles occur because sometimes a misconception in the cognitive function can drive prices higher, which strengthens the misconception, which drives prices even higher, until things become unsustainable. The bust follows similar logic, but tends to be quicker. Because of this, markets are fundamentally unpredictable. He regards this as disproving the "Enlightenment Fallacy" that social institutions can be understood scientifically. Because of this "reflexivity", scientific methods cannot be used to predict the market.
Which is all very well, but "reflexivity" seems to me an awful lot like what mere scientists call "feedback". Now as it happens I agree with the conclusion, that you can't predict the market with an algorithm. But the logic he uses to draw it seems rubbish: you can model feedback in many cases with discrete simulations and plain old differential equations.
Now in some cases the feedback is chaotic, and chaos theory shows that you can't accurately predict it however good your simulation. A simpler problem affects people trying to beat the market with an algorithm: since anyone else can generate the same or a similar algorithm, the predictive power of the algorithm is included in the market.
So, I think Soros exaggerates the impact of his idea.
He also attacks the use of general-equilibrium models to describe markets in economics, since feedback can also generate bubbles. But to a degree he seems to be over-stuffing a straw man. He agrees that equilibrium models can be useful when a bubble isn't happening. But apart but a handful of the swivel-eyed (who think bubbles are caused by the evils of Regulation) pretty much everyone agrees that markets are influenced by both equilibrium and speculative bubbles. The disagreements are over how much weight to give each, how feasible it is to detect and prevent bubbles, and whether bubbles are useful. (Bubbles largely built the railway and internet infrastructure in the UK, for instance.) The book has very little space for those questions, which seem to me the most important.
The book also includes a certain amount of content on how his theory relates to the credit crunch. Here, his observations seem reasonable, but aren't really anything we haven't seen elsewhere. Regulators didn't do enough to stop high-risk debt being repackaged and disguised in complicated investment vehicles. They also relied on the same risk models as the banks/funds were using, which underestimated risks.
The remedies he proposes aren't particularly radical. He regards busts as undervaluing true prices, so thinks it's OK to for the government to prop up house prices to some degree, to minimize the overreaction. Central banks should try to provide some liquidity, reduce the damage to homeowners, punish shareholders to reduce moral hazard.
He shies away from making specific predictions. He doesn't there will be another Great Depression since governments will keep banks afloat. He thinks the dollar will cease to be the main reserve currency, and there will be a period of "turbulence".
Overall then, not a great read. If you want a criticism of market traders' fallacies, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness is a much better bet. Joseph Stiglitz' Globalization and Its Discontents is a much more detailed critique of the global economic institutions. And while they got it out impressively fast (March 2008 is the last entry), with the credit crunch still unfolding, news and websites are going to be better than books for information on it.
Economics: Child labour may create poverty traps, but be protected by powerful lobbies.
|< So if there is everything | Mensiary Entry >|