Book Reviews

Book Review: The Hollywood Economist

The Hollywood Economist
The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies
by Edward Jay Epstein
Melville House, 2010.


Edward Jay Epstein once wrote the Hollywood Economist column for Slate. But these are hard times in the media industry. So clearly, it’s time to compile those columns into a book – a sequel of sorts to his earlier elucidation of Hollywood economics, The Big Picture [read my review]. As with any compilation of this type, there will be some repetition. But the column format forces him to get right to the point, and it is eminently skimmable for the most salient points.

Informed by his knowledge of industry financials, Epstein presents some truly fascinating nuggets of information. Who knew, for instance, that Tom Cruise was such a clever financier? He had enough star power that he insisted on 100% accounting, in which every penny of revenue gets counted when calculating his percentage, instead of Hollywood accounting. As a producer, he sometimes took more out of the movie than the studio – which made the powers-that-be at Paramount so mad at him that they dumped the War of the Worlds project.


Book Review: The Big Picture

The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood
by Edward Jay Epstein
Random House, 2005

Edward Jay Epstein occupies the strange position of being a Hollywood columnist – but one who focuses on the business side of Hollywood rather than the razzle-dazzle. That is a unique niche to be in, but it's also a very small one. When times got tough in the magazine business, Slate dropped his Hollywood Economist column, and Epstein now gets his film-business commentary out through his blog.

Hollywood Economist

But he's absolutely right to point out that the news media rarely covers the substantial parts of the film business. All the focus on box-office receipts obscures the fact that the box office is no longer so important to profitability.  A film need only do well enough to guarantee an afterlife, in which the real money gets made. On the other hand, the shallow focus on box office grosses is not unique to Hollywood. Most business coverage in newspapers is awful, whatever the industry. They focus on big day-to-day events, and rarely do the simple arithmetic to explain the economic fundamentals that drive whole industries.


Book Review: The Snowball

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
by Alice Schroeder
Bantam, 2008.

Alice Schroeder's comprehensive biography of legendary investor Warren Buffett tracks practically every one of Buffett's business ventures since childhood. His paper route, his business recovering and selling used golf balls, his jalopy rental-car – all presented to the reader, presumably so that we can trace his later success back to the business acumen that he showed early in life. Schroeder is a chronicler rather than a storyteller – she writes down nearly every detail that she can pry out of her interview subject, rather than making a judicious selection. That's why the book unfolds over 838 pages of text (plus endnotes).

But at the same time, Warren Buffett is a fascinating person. The advantage of a chronicle is that it allows the reader to draw his own conclusions. Even when Schroeder is clearly being sympathetic to Buffett, such as when she describes some of the negative press coverage that he once received, she does not inject much color or bias. You can really read the book in peace and then think about how the various pieces fit together? Schroeder's prose is more businesslike than eloquent, as befitting a former Wall Street analyst, but it succeeds in telling the story of Buffett's life without turning it into the author's opinion. Alice Schroeder came into Warren Buffett's confidence, and the result is a book with many details that are hard to find in the many other accounts of the Buffett legend.


Book Review: The Eastern Front

The Eastern Front, 1914-1917
by Norman Stone
Macmillan, 1976

In the West, World War I is remembered for the futility of trench warfare, as men died in the tens of thousands for gains of a few hundred yards. In an attempt to break that stalemate, the most industrially- advanced nations of the world applied their ingenuity towards developing industrial ways of killing on the battlefield. Men were asphyxiated by poison gas, burned alive by flamethrowers, and finally, crushed by tanks. Yet another First World War was also fought alongside the war in the trenches -- a war of movement, in which victorious campaigns led to advances of tens, even hundreds of miles. That was the war on the Eastern front -- a war forgotten by a Western Europe that was preoccupied with its own tragedies, a war whose results were overturned by later events, a war that ended up overshadowed by revolution, a war that Winston Churchill dubbed "the unknown war".

Decades after it was written in 1976, Norman Stone's meticulously researched book remains the most complete English-language account of the Eastern front of World War I. In the introduction, Stone summarizes the existing English- language literature as consisting of essentially two books, one of them being Churchill's book from 1931! Of course, by the time Stone was writing his book, the Eastern front of World War I had long since been overshadowed by the Eastern front of World War II, which saw the fiercest fighting of the war and ultimately decided its outcome. The same cannot be said of the Eastern front of World War I.


Book Review: Infantry Attacks!

Infantry Attacks
by Erwin Rommel
Published in German in 1937.

English translation as "Attacks!": Athena Press, 1979.
Later editions are retitled "Infantry Attacks!"


"Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"
          -- George S. Patton (in the movie)

Well, not quite. The movie shows General Patton reading Field Marshal Rommel's book on tank warfare, which he never got a chance to complete. But it's possible that Patton had read this earlier work on infantry tactics, which the US Army rediscovered and had translated into English in 1943.

Infantry Attacks! describes the engagements that Rommel participated in during World War I, as a young lieutenant in the Imperial German Army. The book is structured as a set of tactical problems, giving the disposition of friendly and enemy troops and setting out the objective. Rommel then describes the solution that he decided on, followed by the actual results, along with an assessment of the lessons he learned and suggestions for improvement. It is given largely in


Book Review: Recountings

This book traces the development of MIT’s Mathematics department after World War II, as it developed from a service department in an engineering school into a world-class center of research.  In that sense, the book follows in the footsteps of The Princeton Mathematics Community in the 1930s, which attempted to capture a Golden Era of mathematics at Princeton.  But the MIT oral history is somewhat more cohesive, for Joel Segel conducted all the interviews himself.  As a result, he can adapt his questioning as he goes along, seizing on salient events and getting reactions from later interviewees.

Common threads

For example, several of the professors mentioned the tension between the pure and applied groups in the department.  Indeed, many top math programs handled this tension by splitting into two departments.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is still home to a unified Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department, seems to be reluctant to split disciplines apart.  Yet that doesn’t mean that everything was smooth sailing.


Book Review: River Town

First, I read Peter Hessler’s articles in The New Yorker.  Then, I encountered the author last month on one of his periodic visits to his alma mater.  Finally, I got around to reading his first book – and discovered what I’d been missing all this time.

River Town is en exceptional book that describes the two years that Hessler spent teaching English literature in Fuling, Chonqing as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Since my encounters with Hessler had taken place in reverse order, I couldn’t help but compare his .  The book has a fresher quality to it, for Hessler is is younger and perhaps a bit brasher than he is now.  It combines the personal development of a young man fresh out of college with China’s still-early steps into the larger world.


Book review: The First Team

This is a 500+ page book, and it is chock-full of details. There's even a table that lists every American carrier pilot who fought at the outset of the Second World War in the Pacific. Not just their names, but also the number of Japanese planes that each shot down, when and where some of them were killed, and — for those who survived — their date of retirement and final rank. There are quite a few Captains and Admirals on this list.

But it’s not just facts and figures. The profuse level of detail extends to the history of the fighter squadrons, which is recounted almost on a day-by-day basis. After all, wars is not just a matter of great battles and turning points. In-between the battles comes the daily routine of continual inner-air patrols, for there was always a reconnaissance threat from Japanese scoutplanes. Every once in a while, there would be minor engagements that do not decide the outcome of the war, but cumulatively advance the cause of victory.

Carrier aviation is a very dangerous field in which high-performance aircraft are flown off minuscule shipborne airfields. During the early days of World War II, it was even more hazardous, for the planes had shorter ranges and flew more slowly. Returning home from a mission and flying slow to conserve fuel, the pilots depended on the carrier's own 30-knot speed, for it was a sufficiently-substantial fraction of the airplane's own speed that it affected the navigational calculation. It was not uncommon for a routine scouting mission to run out of fuel and end up with the crew “on the beach,”, waiting to be rescued by the next passing destroyer. And that was if you were lucky, and your radio worked. If nobody heard from you, then the search party had to guess at your position. It was also hazardous on deck. A grizzled veteran may survive numerous encounters with the Japanese, only to be killed by a mechanical accident on a day that saw no combat.


Book Review: The Undercover Economist

The Undercover Economist
Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor — and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!
by Tim Harford
New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Hardcover ISBN: 0-19-518977-9

On the jacket cover of The Undercover Economist is a blurb from Stephen Levitt, the author of the bestselling Freakonomics: "Required reading." Quite an endorsement. In this book, author Tim Harford present a lucid exposition of general economic principles, as applied to the big-issue topics of today. For a college student, this book might make some nice supplementary reading, to introduce deeper topics in economics that will not be reached for several semesters in the regular course sequence. For the general public, it is even more important, for there is a deep disconnect at the moment between popular sentiment and economic theory.

Controversial economics

Many ideas that are only minimally controversial in economics circles are highly controversial with the general public. The economist (and New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman attributes much of the anti-globalization rhetoric to a fundamental understanding of comparative advantage [see his essay: Ricardo's Difficult Idea]. [...]

Book Review: The Box

The Box
How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-691-12324-0

The Box is a 370-page (almost a hundred of which are endnotes) history of the shipping container, the economic phenomenon that revolutionized the world of shipping and underpins today's global market.  The book is not as dense as an article in the Economist, which is unfortunate.  Economist articles frequently read like they were written at twice the length and then edited to add figures and sharpen the analysis to the most salient points.  Levinson's book does not appear to have undergone such a distillation step, which might have transformed an already interesting and insightful book into the standard work on the subject.

The Box traces containerization from its now-mythologized beginnings with Sea-Land's Ideal-X, through the Vietnam War when it proved its worth in the logistics chain, to its maturity as the enabler of global commerce.  Much of the story is told from the perspective of Sea-Land maven Malcom McLean, who conceived of the container in roughly its modern form and shepherded the concept through its infancy.  Along the way, Levinson follows the ASA and ISO discussions of standardized container construction and sizes, and tracks the union negotiations and votes on container handling and compensation.  He also follows politicians' plans for city waterfronts, and explains how containerization caused many traditional ports to decline and newly-built ports to take their place, with a particular focus on the Port of New York.  (Later it would be renamed the Port of New York and New Jersey, as Newark and Elizabeth overtook the City proper in shipping volume).



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