Thursday, November 28, 2013

The iPhone and Android Dog Fight - a Fascinating Story

The subtitle says it all really - it was a war and it was a revolution.

Respected technology and media writer Fred Vogelstein has written an amazingly detailed and lucid account of the incredible corporate drama around the invention of Apple's iPhone and Google's competitor the Android operating system.

He gets inside the two companies by talking to many of the key managers and engineers involved from day one. There's much more than technical and design stuff here, though there's plenty of that. There are highly personal stories of friendships destroyed, betrayals, enmities, hatreds, etc. All the rich details that make this recent history so fascinating and important. 

I really couldn't put this book down. It reads like a novel - a blow-by-blow intense unfolding story. And it brings Steve Jobs and his management style alive, as well as Google's Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.  

'Google wants to kill the iPhone. We won't let them. Their Don't be Evil mantra? It's bullshit.' (Steve Jobs)

Friday, November 22, 2013

If you want to get beyond the tedious partisan bullshit that passes for mature economic debate in this country then you could do a lot worse than read this important new book by highly regarded Australian economist Ross Garnaut.

It is an exceptionally good piece of work. Garnaut surveys and critiques our economic fortunes over the last 40 or so years, but concentrates mainly on the two key periods of the Hawke/Keating 'Reform Era' in the 80's, and the China boom years since 2000 which are now decidedly coming to a swift end. 

He labels this post 2000 period of rising national wealth and personal incomes 'The Great Australian Complacency'. His point is we've seriously dropped the ball on economic reform while we gloated about our good fortune, and as a result are very vulnerable to a great economic deterioration in the near future.

The best parts of Garnaut's thesis are the chapters outlining his ideas for reform: Federal/State relations (yes, that old chestnut, but Garnaut's suggestions are radical and refreshing); the public sector, particularly health and education; utilities; transport; infrastructure; financial services; corporate welfare (he wants it seriously wound back - yay!); the tax system, and lots more. 

He concludes with an excellent and quite damning critique of our efforts on the climate change front (particularly Abbot's proposed abolition of the ETS and his Direct Action proposal), the increasingly strident and perverse lobbying efforts by industry sectors opposed to essential economic reforms (like the appalling campaign against the mining tax by the mining industry), and the Murdoch media's uncritical sucking up to the flimsiest of conservative agendas. 

His message is crystal clear: unless we take up the challenge of seriously increasing our productivity and competitiveness Australia's economic future looks grim indeed.

Our politicians need to read this remarkably good little book, and so do you.

(And by the way Black Inc Books, why no bloody index, you cheap sods?)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Garry Disher's Best Yet - Bitter Wash Road

Bitter Wash Road is Australian crime writer Garry Disher's strongest work to date. It comes pretty close to Peter Temple's classic The Broken Shore in achievement. It's not your average crime thriller. It's a social critique of considerable substance. As well, it has a strong coherent plot, beautifully resolved.

Disher invokes a genuine country Australian atmosphere in all its dry unforgiving hardness. The menace is so thick you could cut it with a knife. We're talking territory not far from Snowtown here - a dark, backward place, where deviance thrives.

The main character, Hirsch, is a former whistle blower in the detective division of the South Australian police force, and hated. He's been demoted, shoved back in uniform and shunted to a one-man hole miles from nowhere to the north of Adelaide. 

His police colleagues in the wider region are mean, dumb, ugly and threatening. It's a brutal, racist and sexist culture. And Hirsch's reputation for 'treachery' proceeds him.

Hirsch uncovers massive corruption, murder and paedophilia. The region's farming, commercial and legal establishment, as well as senior police, are all involved in some way. 

But Hirsch is no push-over. He's got courage, moral and physical, in spades. After being served up so many lame and deeply irritating main protagonists in the recent rash of new fiction from Australia's 'iconic' literary novelists over the last few months it is just so refreshing to be presented with a sympathetic main character who can credibly be described as a hero.

If you've not read any of Disher's Wyatt or Peninsula thrillers then Bitter Wash Road is by far the best introduction to this major writer you could read. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Christos Tsiolkas' Brilliant Barracuda.

Barracuda is not as absorbing a read or as sprawling a story as The Slap. It's more focused and limited in scope. Yet it has much the same power - all the dramatic intensity that brings everyday suburban Australia alive. Few authors have Tsiolkas' ability to so vividly convey the messy, untidy reality of people colliding emotionally, psychologically and intellectually.

On the strength of his swimming ability young Danny Kelly has won a scholarship to one of Melbourne's elite private schools - 'Cunts College'. He comes up against a poncy, bullying culture and it makes him one angry lad. He's working class and a wog.. 'They made him feel dark and short and dirty'. Meet the class society in so-called egalitarian Australia.

Danny is ferociously, even pathologically, competitive and he's slowly turning into a sad, mean-spirited prick as well. There's something close to evil in him.

After his swimming career ignominiously collapses he turns into a bitter and twisted mongrel, a bully himself. His schoolmates call him 'Psycho Kelly', a 'cry-baby'. He felt 'slovenly'; he felt 'shame'. And he's full of self pity. He knocks back the opportunity the school and his parents give him to repeat year 12; he knocks back his former coach's offer to resurrect his swimming career. The coach still believed in him.

He's a deeply emotionally limited young man who comes to blame his father for his failures. But his family is actually loving and supportive, and his father grounded and wise. Danny's your complete loser. 'He'd HAD a future...he'd fucked it up'. Eventually he comes to hate Australia's whole sporting culture, particularly its bogan manifestation: 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi'. The broadcast of the Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremony sends him screaming from the pub.

Tsiolkas serves up multiple set pieces and confrontations, all dramatic but they register the social experience of Australia perfectly. His characters are nothing if not intensely and recognisably real.

I think the anti Australian thing is overcooked though. He works a bit too hard to present the working class as real and the middle class as fake, selfish and up itself.

Part Two of the novel moves into Danny's adult life. He's now 'Dan'. We explore family, friends, lovers, gay sex, religion, identity, literature and, repeatedly, his intense shame for his failures and lack of achievement. It's an ever richer tapestry as he moves beyond his narrow upbringing and grows up. He reaches out and makes peace with his family and friends. He even reaches out to his old school 'friend' and swimming buddy Martin who, for good reason, ignores him.

Finally he achieves a real measure of peace. His demons are gone.

There is one dimension to this novel that bothered and annoyed me. Tsiolkas sets up a constant contrast between Danny's hyper dramatic inner turmoil and his polite, sober articulation of his thoughts to his family and friends. Like Danny, so many characters have 'rage inside'. This rage becomes a mantra and eventually empties of all meaning. 'He could crush him if he wanted to'. What's with these violent inner thoughts all the time? It's High Romanticism, verging on the melodramatic, and it's tiresome. All the so-called rage is unresolved. At one point Danny spews bile all over his father - 'you failed me dad' - but then suddenly makes cooing, apologetic noises as he quickly cools down. 

The over-dramatisation will annoy quite a few readers of more Anglo sensibility I think. Personally I can only take so much hyped up, Latin emotion.

I'm tempted to summarise the novel thus: 'Danny Kelly comes from an immigrant family - mother Greek; father Scots/Irish- where passions and working class resentments are ratcheted up to 11 out of 10. Unsurprisingly, it makes the boy'. 

That's of course being unfair. I think.