One of the joys of non-fiction is that some real life stories can be as exciting and unlikely as the most imaginative of stories spun. ‘Decoding the Heavens’ by Jo Marchant, despite the terrible new age self-helpesque title, tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism. This ancient mechanical artefact was fished up from an Ancient Greek ship wreck at the turn of the 20th century, and stunned the world because such a complex machine should never have existed from this period. There are three threads to this story: the human interest side of those that worked to discover its purpose, the science of what the machine does, and the history of how and why such a thing could possibly exist.
‘Decoding the Heavens’ is a compelling account of those that sought to work out just what this 2,000 year old clockwork computer was for. From its discovery in 1901 to 2006, there is politics, betrayal and intense rivalry as various scientists and mathematicians dedicated their lives racing to be named as the genius that could finally reveal its purpose. The book is accessible to those without scientific knowledge, though some (like me) may end up skipping some of the explanations of mathematical ratios.
Whilst Marchant succeeds with telling the scientific and human interest sides of the story, I found myself wanting more than the relatively paltry chapter that she includes speculating as to the original purpose of this fascinating machine and its context in Ancient Greek society. What makes the Antikythera Mechanism so extraordinary – what drives the entire story – is the absurdity of its existence in the first place. If the Ancient Greeks were capable of creating such complex devices, why was the technology never applied to other machines? Why did it die with their society? Clockwork technology was not reinvented until after the dark ages – just think, mankind could be almost 2,000 years more advanced had the knowledge survived.
THE BIG SHORT – Michael Lewis
Since the financial crisis, experts keep popping up out of the woodwork to say “I saw it coming”.
Max Keiser, Dr Doom, Michael Ruppert… as the stock markets have crashed, their credibility has risen.
This book is also about a number of people who also saw it coming. The difference is they bet on it. This is the ‘big short’ of the title.
And what a cast of characters it is. There’s the compulsively rude, foul-mouthed Steve Eisman; Dr Michael Burry, a one-eyed eccentric who later finds out he has Asperger’s Syndrome (As Lewis remarks: “Only someone who has Asperger’s would read a sub-prime mortgage-bond prospectus”); and the three kids from California who traded stocks in a shed behind a friend’s house in Berkely, before moving to a Greenwich Village art studio.
Up against this cast of oddballs and weirdos are the arrogant, know-it-all bankers: whether it’s alpha-male Howie Hubler at Morgan Stanley who shouts down those who dissent from him or Wing Chau, a snake-oil salesman who has turned his marketing skills to mortgage bonds.
This is what gives the book such life. Because we know that taxpayers are those who will end up footing the bill for the bankers’ stupidity and corruption, when you read an article about the financial crisis each page is another reason to slit your wrists. But in this account, you’re rooting for the underdogs: anti-social outcasts rejected by the society in which they find themselves striving to make their fortune. Instead of growing feeling of fear and disaster, you’re willing it on. Crash! Crash! Crash!
But it’s a bumpy ride. One of the best chapters is Lewis’ account of Dr Burry struggling to keep his fund alive in 2007. Longtime investors are losing faith in his strategy to “short” the housing market and are demanding their money back. His fund is draining money, yet if he can only hold on they’ll be a big profit to be made. Not that his investors are thankful. Even at the end once he’s made a $720 million profit, not one of his investors call to say thank you.