Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – TwoMorePages Book Review

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah – TwoMorePages Book Review

So I put off getting this book for a long time. “I’ll read something else first.” I said to myself. In fact, that’s how I ended up reading that Jon Stewart book about the Daily Show.

I strongly regret that decision now. This book was so entertaining, so fun and easy to read, that I finished it in 4 days while I was out on a ski vacation. I’d go skiing, then come back and read until dinner. IT WAS FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC.

And I learned so much about how different my life could have been. Trevor Noah is 33 years old. I’m 30. While I was playing with legos and watching Power Rangers here in Texas, thinking that racism is kind of dumb and that was totally normal, Trevor Noah was growing up in Apartheid and thinking “yes, of course the cities are segregated. It’s totally normal that my dad and mom have to pretend to *not be my dad and mom* because I’m mixed.”

Sometimes books open your eyes to different perspectives and enlarge the scope of your world view. This one did that, and did it while telling extremely entertaining stories.

 

Wait, what? That’s a thing? That sounds like something from the Hunger Games.

One of the takeaways that I’ll always remember from this book is the description of how Apartheid society worked. For instance, he described how there was one black settlement of about a million people with only one road in or out. That way, in case the people living there started getting a little too uppity and started protesting or something like that, the government could close the roads and bomb the settlement and people would have nowhere to run to. WHAAAT?! O.o

That sounds like something from some fictional dystopian future, not a description of the 1980s which I was alive for.

Another thing that I learned was that there weren’t just two groups, black and white, like I’ve tended to experience here in America. No, there was an entire other one – colored (or mixed). They had their own segregation and their own set of unique ways to be treated. If you were mixed, you belonged to *that* group and not necessarily just white or black, depending on which way the color of your skin skewed. It’s a trippy thing to think about, honestly.

I’ve experienced very little racism in my life, and I am super thankful for that. Seldom have I thought it held me back, except perhaps when it came to dating. I never even experienced the whole anti-asian bias that Universities are sometimes accused of having, since I got into both the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin when I applied. So reading about the stark contrast between the way I grew up and the way Trevor grew up was jarring enough; reading about how he just kind of accepted it and rolled with it, like it was a 100% normal thing, was much more surreal.

 

How African racism is different from American racism

British racism said, “If the monkey can walk like a man and talk like a man, then perhaps he is a man.” Afrikaner racism said, “Why give a book to a monkey?”

In America you had the forced removal of the natives onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.

It’s weird to think that racism has different forms. That the racism that a person could experience in one country could be different from one country to another. I always thought it was a binary kind of thing – either it existed or it didn’t. I never thought about shades of grey in racism itself.

What Trevor did a great job illustrating through his stories was just how much more severe the racism under apartheid was. Yes, you have discussion and discourse about how there is a cycle of poverty here in America (and about how black people tend to be stuck in it), and about how hard it is to escape it, but at least here I’ve never heard anyone outright say “Yeah, don’t even bother teaching those kids. They’re x race.” or “Yeah, you have to live in this neighborhood that we’ve set aside for you. You’re x race.

Yes, through social policies, black kids might be tracked to poorer public school and so would get less of an education. Yes, because it’s too expensive to live in certain areas, you may end up with de facto segregation like in Austin where everyone of a certain ethnicities tend to live in certain areas, but it’s never specifically defined in the law. There weren’t requirements for separate restrooms for whites, blacks, and colored folks.

Now, I hear the argument that perhaps the end result is the same or at the very least similar, but the fact remains that it was literally spelled out.

Growing up in the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I knew my cousins were getting beaten for things that I’d done, but I wasn’t interested in changing my grandmother’s perspective, because that would mean I’d get beaten too. Why would I do that? So that I’d feel better?

At that point, I didn’t think of the special treatment as having to do with color. It wasn’t, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is white.” It was, “Trevor doesn’t get beaten because Trevor is Trevor.”

-Trevor, on growing up as a mixed kid in a black family

The way he went on to describe the societal differences, even in black society was eye opening as well. The belief that black people were inherently inferior seemed ingrained into South Africa’s society. When he, as a mixed kid, was hanging out with his black family, even *they* treated him differently, but in a better way.

It’s not reverse-racism like you often hear about here in the US, where a white kid in a black community would be ostracized; it’s a literal continuation of “white is better” that the rest of his society was promoting. Weird.

And his commentary on how people who were treated better would react is spot on. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who society has decided to treat preferentially – why would you go out and change it? Indeed, you might not even understand why you were getting preferential treatment – you might think it’s just because *you specifically* are awesome.

I won’t lie. I feel like I’ve been in that spot before growing up. Sometimes it was getting to do something my sister couldn’t because I was a boy. Sometimes it was the luxury of knowing that I as a kid would get in less trouble than other kids because I was a better student. But at least in my mind, it was because I was awesome. Nothing more; nothing less.

 

Commentary on living in “the hood”

The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.

The hood has a gravitational pull. It never leaves you behind, but it also never lets you leaves.

-Trevor, on his experiences in the hood

One of the absolute best things this book did was give me a fresh perspective on things I had never experienced. I grew up in a pretty affluent neighborhood without wanting for anything monetarily, so experiences in Houston’s third ward are completely foreign to me. And here’s Trevor talking about his experience in South Africa’s version of it.

And he describes things so vividly it’s perfect. His thoughts on how the economy of the hood is perfectly evolved for its environment is intriguing – how it doesn’t discriminate; how when traditional employment fails, the hood provides ways for its members to provide for themselves economically, to survive.

But the way in which he described how it’s *extremely* difficult to leave is kind of terrifying. His recollection of one of his friends who got a legit job, but was peer pressured basically to quit it is sad. Crabs in a bucket, right?

 

Poignant Life Observations

They’re free, they’ve been taught how to fish, but no one will give them a fishing rod.

Trevor did a fantastic job of coming up with very eloquent ways to describe some of the life lessons he learned. The sentence above was him talking about how you can educate people, but if you don’t give them any opportunities to use that education, it doesn’t actually help.

He talked specifically about how he had the intelligence to do things, the drive to work hard, and the personality to sell things, but it was really only when his friend Andrew gave him his CD-writer that Trevor was able to utilize his skills to be productive, to do something with his life (even if it was just to create pirated CDs).

The more time I spent in jail, the more I realized that the law isn’t rational at all. It’s a lottery. What color is your skin? How much money do you have? Who’s your lawyer? Who’s the judge?

This is one thing I’ve only heard from other people’s stories, and that I believe is universally true, whether it’s here in America or South Africa. And the way that Trevor describes his time in jail is…a little horrifying.

He describes a huge hulk of a man who was in for stealing, but who couldn’t communicate with his guards or his defense lawyers, and so would probably not get to defend himself in court; one who was apparently not a violent criminal but was being treated as such because of the way he looked combined with the fact that nobody could understand what he was saying because he spoke a different language.

You hear stories from things like the Daily Show where poor people don’t know how to navigate the legal system and so get much harsher sentences; and you also hear through the grapevine of how people with money are able to successfully navigate their way through legal troubles and it’s…disheartening.

So yeah, I agree with you Trevor. The law is a lottery. And you get better tickets if you have money.

We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t live with them.

Trevor’s point when saying this was twofold. One, he said this is why ghettos were created, so that rich white people in South Africa would not have to see the poor black people that they were taking advantage of; But ALSO, two, it’s how he said everyone in the hood rationalized stealing. You weren’t stealing from a person, taking something and affecting their lives: you were just taking something that was there. It wasn’t until he got a camera with a family’s photos on it that he finally felt remorse for being complicit in stealing something.

I think this is a poignant life observation as well. It’s so much easier to get mad at someone else or trivialize their problems if you don’t have to see their face, to see them deal with the problems that you may have had a hand in. So if you really want to change a person’s mind on something that you think they’re doing, make them see the firsthand human results of what they’ve done. Don’t argue with them on the internet. It will be much more effective. Hopefully, this is a lesson I can take going forward in my life.

 

Fun, Fun Stories

“Yeah, she was super sad too, because she had such a crush on you. She was always waiting for you to ask her out. Okay, I gotta go to class! Bye!”

Reading back on what I’ve written, I make his book sound super preachy, and that does Trevor a disservice. Perhaps literally the best part about his book is that he wasn’t preachy about his overarching messages. This book was, first and foremost, “a collection of stories from growing up in Apartheid in South Africa.”

And boy were those stories so entertaining. Whether it was in the context of an overarching message he was trying to get across (like the ones I referenced above), or just about him regretting his inability to ask a girl out (quote above), they were genuinely funny and delightful.

I mean, yes, he’s a comedian, and maybe you should expect that, but his writing style was *on point*.

Fufi was my first heartbreak. No one has even betrayed me more than Fufi.

I believed that Fufi was my dog, but of course that wasn’t true. Fufi was a dog. I was  boy. We got along well. She happened to live in my house. That experience shaped what I’ve felt about relationships for the rest of my life: You do knot own the thing that you love.

His story regarding how his dog used to go and hang out with another family during the day was hilarious. And the life lesson that he was trying to convey with it is pretty good in the grand scheme of things.

Life lessons with funny stories? Yes please.

 

Slightly less funny stories

But the closing story of the book was honestly the most riveting. And it sucks that this isn’t some fictional story, because it would be way better if it is. He talked about how his mom’s abusive relationship with his stepdad, and about how said stepdad tried to kill his mom.

This was the story that he told mostly just as a story – no life lesson, no entertaining bit at the end. And it showed. He conveyed his tone so well, you could feel his anxiousness, feel his anger at the situation and how helpless he was about it.

For the life of me I could not understand why she wouldn’t do the same: leave. Just leave. Just fucking leave.

I won’t spoil the story in case you haven’t read it yet, but I know that feeling, where one of your friends/family is in a situation, partly of their own doing, and THEY WON’T STOP. You just want to yell at them to stop, but they won’t.

It’s infuriating, and you won’t understand. And that’s basically where Trevor was. That’s good writing to me.

 

Final Thoughts

I’m so glad I took the time to read this book. It was entertaining, had good life lessons with each story, and gave me insight into how other people grew up. Hell, other people *my age* grew up (Trevor is basically my age).

My only gripe would be that since it’s a collection of stories, Trevor’s age jumps around between the stories. He’ll be a high school graduate in one chapter, then you’ll jump to a new story and he’ll be 11. Sometimes that was jarring. But whatever, I’m sure that he put some thought into the ordering of the stories, and that was a small thing overall.

The little excerpts he put in between his chapters describing something in history I thought were perfect too. They set up the following chapters well, and were little bite size nuggets of wisdom.

This might be my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year. I loved it.

Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders – TwoMorePages Book Review

Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders – TwoMorePages Book Review

In light of our recent election results (*le sigh*), I decided to continue down my foray of non-fiction for a little while longer, this time with a book written by none other than Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

My first concern when reading this book was that it would be ghostwritten, and I’m pretty happy to report that based on my cursory research afterwards, it seems like Bernie Sanders did indeed write this book. I kind of got hints of that while I was reading in the way he said things, but some ghostwriters are really good at matching tone, so I couldn’t be 100% sure.

I didn’t know much going into the book, and mostly expected a recap of his experience running through the democratic primaries. There was definitely some of that, probably about 25% of the book, but most of the book dealt with the issues that were near and dear to his heart. Indeed, now that I’m done, it feels like this was Bernie’s platform in a nutshell. The entire 2nd half of the book goes point my point with what he thinks is wrong and, more importantly, how he would fix it.

It’s sad that in today’s political climate, it seems that complaining is given equal weight to problem solving, so that second part (HOW HE WOULD FIX IT) is especially poignant to me. Do I agree with everything he said? No, but that’s unrealistic to agree with everything. I was impressed with the thought that he had clearly put into his positions and his proposed methods of dealing with them. Honestly, after reading his stances on the current state of the US, and how entrenched those positions are, I don’t know how he gets up every morning. The weight of that would crush me, but it seems to drive him.

 

Takeaways and things I’ve learned

The Citizens United decision hinges on the absurd notion that money is speech, corporations are people, and giving huge piles of undisclosed cash to politicians in exchange for access and influence does not constitute corruption.

(1) I’ll admit I was not politically active enough to *really* know what Citizens United was all about until I read this book. And damn, is it damning. It is basically legalized corruption and bribery, and allows big donors to basically buy elections.

It allows unlimited money in politics so that way one person with deep pockets can in essence get laws made that are favorable to themselves. Whaaaat? It seems so unabashedly dystopian that I can’t wrap my head around how this is a real thing, in real life, and not something concocted in a fiction book I’m reading.

Bernie went into great detail about how had he become President, his biggest priority was in nominating a Supreme Court Justice that would be against Citizens United, and about the mechanics of just how you can use money to corrupt politics and legislation.

Sigh, what could have been…

(2) Republicans tend to win elections with low voter turnout. I’ve never fully understood why those drives to “get out the vote” seemed so important. Seems like you’d end up with a 50/50 split of people voting for one party or another, but end up with the same proportion. Now I know that’s generally not the case, not only because younger voters tend to skew more liberal / progressive, but because conservative voters tend to vote no matter what whereas younger voters only tend to vote when they are excited and involved in the political process.

He cited the 2014 mid term elections as a strong example, where even though the country was better in every way since 2010, very few people came out to vote (lowest voter turnout since WWII!) and Republicans took several seats in both the Senate and House.

The truth is that when people come into a room, or a gymnasium or an arena, and the look around them and see all the other people in that venue sharing those same views, they come away strengthened and energized. They are not alone.

(3) Rallies actually do matter. Sure, they matter more in smaller states, like Vermont, where there are just straight up fewer people, but they do matter. I’ve always internally wondered why candidates bother with in person rallies instead of just making sure they have a clear and concise message and broadcasting that as well as possible. I’ve personally never made a decision based on a rally, but based on Bernie’s anecdotes, they worked, and they worked really well for his campaign.

Moreover, his point was that they worked not only in persuading people that attended the rallies, but in encouraging them to become more politically active, reaching voters like me that have never attended a rally. Interesting.

Throughout the campaign, from late November to the end of my campaign, I defeated Trump in 28 our of 30 national polls, almost always by double digits.

(4) In the aftermath of the election, one thing I kept reading over and over was that Bernie would have done better against Trump than Hillary had. I originally attributed this to spilled milk revisionist history, but when I delved deeper, I was surprised to see that this claim was backed up with factual data. 28/30? Damn.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan were the key democratic states that Clinton lost in her bid for the Presidency, and they were states with an overwhelmingly rural population where I think Sanders message would have come across a lot better, especially in light of the fact that he spent time doing rallies in rural areas, much moreso than either Trump or Clinton did.

 

Reading more about his experience in the democratic primary makes me further upset about how it all went down, about how the press repeatedly counted Superdelegate votes before they even voted when reporting the lead that Clinton had, disincentive people from even going to vote. By the time that the California primary rolled around, most media outlets had already reported the primaries over. I didn’t realize that at the time, and that sucks.

You could feel the frustration in his tone when he recounts his experience there. Ugh, and now I’m frustrated too. Stupid DNC…I now feel like *you’re* partly responsible for this Trump Presidency.

Look at that ABC number again: 261 minutes devoted to campaign coverage this year, and less than one minute of that has specifically been for Sanders.


In fact, I was gently faulted by some for having excessive “message discipline,” for spending too much time discussing real issues. Boring. Not what a successful modern campaign was about.

(5) I never realized just how biased the media had been in covering his campaign until I saw the numbers laid out. And to see how much more airtime the mainstream media gave Trump vs any more rational candidates, ESPECIALLY SANDERS, is infuriating.

Like the whole “Bernie would have done better than Trump” rhetoric I saw post election, I originally attributed any arguments I saw about Bernie not receiving enough press coverage to spilled milk. And just like that example, I’m proven wrong by specific numbers. How…in the what?!

 

His political stances

The rest of the book basically went into his political stances:

  • How our current political climate is basically an oligarchy where the richest people wield a bigger amount of power than I even thought
  • The state of our domestic infrastructure and how he proposed to fix it (and finance said fixes!)
  • Climate change is fucking real, and how he would have encouraged further renewable power generation
  • A single payer health care system is the best and cheapest long term solution for anyone earning under $500k a year
  • The TPP is bad for the middle class, and should be repealed
  • Criminal justice and how the disproportionate treatment of minorities vs Caucasian people is bad for society as a whole
  • 90% of the media is controlled by 6 companies, and they filter what message gets out to most people. This damages the foundation of democracy.

 

It’s too bad this book didn’t come out during the democratic primaries. It would have helped his messaging a lot, though I also understand the argument that most voters would not have taken the time to read 450-ish pages of his stances and experiences, perhaps it would have changed the minds of a few people, or some people like me could have made a tl;dr version that circulated on the web equally as well.

As I write this review, I feel frustration/anger at the DNC and the media for trivializing his campaign and focusing on stupid things like emails instead of issues, which Bernie stubbornly insisted on emphasizing. It makes me genuinely angry to read about just how stacked the deck was against him in the democratic primary.

Since inauguration day, I’ve grown so much more angry and bitter than I thought possible at people who voted for Trump (not at conservative voters, but specifically who voted for Trump). I see him dismantling efforts at combating climate change, at seeing him censor censor any agencies that dare say that climate change is real, at seeing him trot out his press secretary to tell bold faced lies (oh, wait, I’m sorry “alternative facts” is the phrase that KellyAnne Conway would prefer) and expecting us to believe it.

And my heart weeps to see what kind of person we could have had instead. Though they were both considered “anti establishment”, you could not set up a more stark foil than Trump and Sanders.

Sanders’s closing message is supposed to be one of hope, one that’s supposed to inspire me and other readers to go out and change things, to be involved, and to make the world a better place with something similar to his vision.

And maybe one day I’ll be able to at least re-read the closing message and feel that way. Because right now I sure don’t feel hopeful.

 

 

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History – TwoMorePages Book Review

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History – TwoMorePages Book Review

Wow. I’ve never read a book in this format before. Instead of one author telling a story, it’s basically in a documentary format, with different people all talking about the same thing in a conversation.

It took awhile to get used to at first, but…I’m a fan. Especially in the latter half of the book, when I could place faces to names.

I caught on to the Daily Show later than most. Wasn’t around for most of the Bush years, but caught on a little after the writer’s strike while Obama was in office. So the first half of the book was really informative for me, and the later half was close to my heart since I remember watching several of the things they covered.

 

From The Daily Show with Craig Killborn to the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

I didn’t realize just how much the show changed from when Craig Killborn did it, and what Jon Stewart stepped into. They chronicled how they turned over basically *the entire staff*, and how it wasn’t really easy doing it. There was bad blood and power struggles, with people being forced out of the show. Reading about how the original producer was eventually shut out of the show and people throwing various bits of shade at her, and reading about her response to it all was intense.

But it did chronicle just how hard it was, and how the show dramatically changed afterwards, to emphasize Jon Stewart’s vision for the daily show. Results oriented, I know, but I’m glad it happened. I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I wouldn’t passionately hold most of the views I do without it, and without him.

 

Switching the focus of the show

What the book really did well was to show how the focus of the show shifted over time. Jon Stewart’s early years were still mainly focused on comedy, not necessarily political satire. The book talked about how during the Bush years, the Daily Show was one of the first shows to start criticizing what it saw as outright lies and deception by the administration. It talked about how weird it was that the narrative in the country at the time was “If you point out our inconsistencies, you’re unpatriotic and you hate America.”

I specifically remember living that, and looking back now, it feels so weird to pointedly hate the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George Bush while in London, and to see how Toby Keith’s career was basically launched from super patriotic fluff songs.

So reading about the show’s internal struggles about whether or not to showcase the misinformation being given from the Bush and Cheney administration was extremely interesting. Especially the part where Stewart is recounting how he felt when he made the decision – how ANGRY he was that an administration would blatantly make up facts, be proven wrong, and then try to bury it and never address it again. And more than that, how angry he was with a press that he held partly accountable for helping the administration dupe everyone.

I don’t even remember feeling duped during those years. I’m one of those weird people who voted for Bush, liked Bush, then voted for Obama and loved Obama. Reading this book and seeing how the Bush administration did silly things like skirt around the definition of torture, blatantly make up reasons to invade Iraq, and then claim that anyone criticizing them was unpatriotic really sheds a new light on those years for me.

Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh, right, the book does a really good job describing the events that led to a shift in the Daily Show’s repertoire. It talked about how it first got correspondents into major political meetings, about Carrell’s experience on McCain’s bus, about how weird it was for the correspondents, who thought they were doing silly things in a very serious theater. But then to watch them realize that it’s really much less formal and austere than they thought. It talked about how the show started the trend of holding someone’s feet to the fire with clips of what they said in the past, with a poignant example of a fake debate between then President Bush and statements made publicly by Bush when was governor. I hadn’t even heard of that when it came out. It seems so hilariously sharp in retrospect.

 

Writer’s Strike

“I mean, put this in your fucking book. I needed that fucking money and there was no reason for Jon to give it to us then. Jon hadn’t been given his money then, from the publisher, but Jon gave us our advances – out of his pocket, to keep us alive during the strike.”

-Steve Bodow

 

So…fast forward to about the time that I started watching the show, which was around the time of the writer’s strike. I think that I originally started watching because someone had mentioned to me that the Daily Show was a really good example of what happens when you don’t have exceptional writing staff, that while the show was still good, it was noticeably less good with the writer’s strike ongoing.

Reading about how the staff felt, about how the writers went on strike while the producers and the talent stuck around was extremely interesting. Moreover, reading that Jon helped his staff out by paying them from his own pocket, a HUGE FEAT when you really think about it, is amazing.

But more than that, I loved reading about the divide that it created after the show came back on the air, and that still existed after the writer’s strike ended. Two of the main writers, David Javerbaum and Josh Lieb were on opposite sides of that strike since one of them was also a producer. Stewart talked about how awful it felt to be treated as the bad guy by his writers when he had PAID THEM OUT OF HIS OWN POCKET, and was the one that was going to bat for them with Comedy Central to try and get them most of what they wanted. And then how awful it felt after things got healed and how literally none of the writers said thank you at the time.

War with Fox News

Here is what Fox has done through their cyclonic, perpetual emotion machine that is 24 hour a day, 7 day a week – they’ve taken reasonable concerns about this president and this economy and turned it into a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao. Explain to me why that is the narrative of your network.

-Jon Stewart to Bill O’Reilly

One of the major takeaways I took from *watching* the show was the absurdity of Fox News. To this day, I still don’t understand how anyone can watch it, much less how it’s become the #1 cable news network. With the way it blurs the lines between opinion pieces and news pieces, how is anyone supposed to get news from what Stewart lovingly calls a “panic machine”?

But I digress. That’s not what I’m writing about here.

Much like on the show, in the book, Stewart really rails against how ironic it is that a network that’s slogan is “Fair and Balanced” is basically the most slanted news network there is. The book goes into detail about Jon Stewart’s interactions with the network, from interviews with O’Reilly and Wallace, to its relationship with Glenn Beck.

What I thought was especially cool was that the book got responses from people at Fox News and fit them into the chapters as discussion. They seem much more rational as people when you can see responses like the following. Well, except Glenn Beck. But whatever.

And that was actually one of the things I always liked about Jon’s show, is that yes, he mocked you, but it was mocking in a kind of disappointed way, like we should do better than that.

-Chris Wallace, Fox News

It was simultaneously hilarious and scary reading Stewart recount his meeting with Roger Ailes after a Fox News interview. Ailes started with “How are you doing? How are your kids?” which sounds friendly enough, until you realize that Ailes has never met Stewart’s kids and shouldn’t have known their names. The way Stewart describes it, it could easily be interpreted as a friendly but veiled threat against his family. WHAAAT? That sounds like a scene from a movie with an over the top bad guy.

Apparently that encounter was part of what lead up to the “Go Fuck Yourself” choir that is referenced on the internet as one of the Daily Show’s highlights.

 

The Rally to Restore Sanity (AND/OR Fear)

The book also went into detail about the Rally to Restore Sanity and the March to Keep Fear Alive. Reading about how it was originally supposed to be two events was eye opening for me. I remember seriously contemplating going to it back when it was was originally announced.

I think it would have gone over much better as two separate events, one with Colbert’s March to Keep Fear Alive, and one with the Rally to Restore Sanity. The juxtaposition and mock conflict would have presented a much more cohesive message. But it was better to have it happen than not.

It was intriguing reading about the difficulties with setting up the event, while simultaneously trying to cover the nearby primaries. I hadn’t realized that they never rehearsed it and that the script wasn’t given out until the figurative 11th hour. That’s amazing that they pulled it off.

What was extremely humorous was Jon Stewart recounting how people in Washington had told him his event failed because it hadn’t gotten people to vote more Democratic, since that was never Stewart’s goal.

 

The WTC First Responders Bill

And I was ranting to them (first responders being interviewed) about, ‘These fucking congressmen, they just want to go home, they’re talking about how nostalgic they are for Christmas and they can’t bear another day away from Tennessee or Arizona…” and Kenny Specht said, ‘Oh, you know we always thought it was an honor to work on the holidays, to protect people’s families.’

And I told him, ‘Say that. that’s how we’re ending.’

I remember watching the show and seeing this bill mentioned, but I never realized the scope of what was involved, or how dearly that Jon Stewart held it to his heart. I had thought it was just another piece about the absurdity of a Republican Congress saying that they love the work of people in uniform, but won’t pay to help the ones who need it.

Reading in the book about how much work had to go into getting the bill passed, how it was basically stuck and dead, and about how the Daily Show basically shamed Congress into passing it was eye opening. And to read about how they had to do it again 5 years later taught me two things. (1) Congress can be petty. Why would your bill expire in five years? (2) Shaming people publicly is actually a valid way to get things done in Congress.

 

Wyatt Cenac

One of the things that the book did especially well was shed light on some Daily Show controversies that hadn’t really been talked about, or at least that I didn’t really know about. One of these things was the reported argument between Jon Stewart and Wyatt Cenac, one that purportedly led to Wyatt’s departure from the show later.

It was something that I had kind of read about in passing and though “No way that’s true” when I had read that Jon Stewart had taken offense to getting called a racist after one of his more racial bits, and had kicked Wyatt off the show. The way the book described it, with people that had been there all giving their takes, really paints the picture well to me.

“I believe, to this day, Wyatt thinks he said ‘Fuck you, I’m done with you,’ and that is not what I heard. Jon started to walk down the hallway, towards his office, and Wyatt followed him, and they yelled at each other all the way down the hallway, into Jon’s office.”

-Jen Flanz

It seems like it was a heated misunderstanding that really blew up more than it should have. Granted, the book is pretty high on Jon Stewart in general, but most of the people’s perspectives that I read in the book seem to paint Stewart in a good light.

But it was interesting, albeit in a gossipy kind of way, to read about what went down.

 

How Comedy Central fucked up and could have had The Daily Show and the Colbert Report through the 2016 election but didn’t

I still truly believe that had the Daily Show show with Jon Stewart stayed on the air through the 2016 election, Trump would not be President-Elect now. I have at least a few friends that voted for Trump that I believe would not have if the Daily Show had stayed in its previous iteration. Now, I’m sure some folks would argue that’s not true, that Trump’s absurdities would have reached those people through traditional media. That anyone who would have voted for Trump would never have watched the Daily Show.

But I know some people who voted for Trump that loved the Colbert Report, and felt similarly about the Daily Show. Having a father figure like Jon Stewart telling you that voting for Trump is bad in SO MANY WAYS might have tipped the scales. I love Jon Oliver, but he doesn’t carry the same serious gravitas. He’s more like your silly brother telling you things. Stewart and the Daily Show felt more like your father telling you things.

Trump didn’t win by that much in each of those battleground states. Having the Daily Show might have made the difference. And if both Stewart AND Colbert were on? Crikey.

And so it’s so weird to me to learn that the main reason that we didn’t have either of those shows for the 2016 election is that Comedy Central tried playing hardball a little too much in contract negotiations. Instead of being signed through 2016, Stewart and Colbert, disillusioned with the contract negotiations, only came to an agreement with CC for 2 years, ending before the 2016 Election. This allowed Colbert to take his new gig with CBS, ending the Colbert Report, and allowed Stewart to back out of the limelight by leaving the Daily Show altogether.

I won’t lie. That hurts. A lot. Goddammit Comedy Central.

 

John Oliver

What they (Comedy Central) didn’t do was prepare for succession. Probably over two or three million dollars they let John Oliver slip through their fingers.

And to learn that Jon Stewart had picked John Oliver to be his successor, but Comedy Central was so shortsighted as to not have signed him to some sort of contract to prevent him from going to another show? Sheer lunacy.

The book went into great detail about how Comedy Central really dropped the ball in negotiations with John Oliver to keep him around. Dropped the ball so hard that he was getting offers from other stations, like Showtime and GODDAMN HBO, to host a show with them. It was endearing reading about Jon Stewart’s conversations with John Oliver about how he’d be insane not to take the HBO gig.

Reading about his last day made me look up the last episode that John Oliver was a part of. The book describes it with an extremely emotional tone, and I couldn’t help but feel it while watching the clip again. It was amazing.

 

Final Thoughts

This book was. AMAZING. It started off rough for me since I couldn’t really place faces to the names I was reading, and I wasn’t involved much in the early years of the Daily Show. Plus, the reading format took a little bit to get used to.

But it got SO MUCH BETTER. The book was so good that it got me to look up clips of the show from years past just to see how amazing a clip was. And it really got me more emotionally invested in the show…a dead show doh. I went back to watch the last episode with Jon Stewart again after reading the very emotional remarks by all the correspondents in the book and it…well, I’m not ashamed, it made me cry. haha.

This has really given me reason to watch the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, hoping that it hits a similar stride. I hope it does, because from the way that Stewart described it in the book and in random articles I read on the internet, he won’t be coming back or doing anything like the Daily Show ever again. And now I’m sad.

Dark Pools – TwoMorePages Book Review

Dark Pools – TwoMorePages Book Review

This is hands down the best financial book I have read to date. It was even better than Flash Boys, by my favorite financial author Michael Lewis, the book which prompted me to read further to understand HFT (high frequency trading) better. Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that it is even better than Michael Lewis’s The Big Short , which everyone (including me) loves.

Compared to Flash Boys, It did a much better job of illustrating the problems associated with high frequency trading; why I, as a normal investor should care; and, best of all, helped to illuminate how HFT came about in the first place.

Major takeaways

What was extremely surprising was learning about the ironic nature of what happened: practices that were originally put in place to help the average investor by punishing and taking advantage of rent-seeking intermediaries (market makers and specialists on the floors of the NASDAQ and NYSE) eventually morphed to become the the very practices which now prey on average investors, acting as an unseen intermediary that drives costs up. At least before, you knew you were getting fucked because you were crossing large bid/ask spreads from market makers; the fucking was transparent. Now, you’ll put in an order to buy or sell across what looks like a thin spread, but then transact at worse than you expected. EVERY. TIME.

The other surprising, but extremely relevant takeaway from this book was the revelation that it’s not necessarily the speed in which HFT firms trade that is the problem. That’s what most people initially conclude: “Oh, well nobody can think in terms of fractions of seconds. That’s how HFT firms are taking advantage of me.” Rather, it is the special order types that HFT are allowed to use, combined with their speed, that gives them their alpha, their edge over you and me and any other investor. Instead of being limited to normal market orders, or limit orders, like you and me, HFT get to use special orders that most people don’t even know about: ones that allow the to provide liquidity only when they want to (when they’re going to make money risk free), and step out of the way all the other times whenever shit is going down (like during the flash crash).

Less surprising, and covered in Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, was the revelation that HFT firms basically front run all of us any time that we make trades. Because of delays between one exchange and another, they can tell when say, Fidelity is purchasing a lot of shares of a specific company (for their customers presumably), and can then pull their original offer to sell at $X , and then put in a new offer to sell at $X + some amount. So then Fidelity ends up paying more for the stock than they would have otherwise.

So, why do I care?

Now, that all may mean fuck-all to you in isolation. “Who cares if they make money scalping pennies here and there? I just index and buy every once in awhile through my 401(k). I’m too small for HFT to care about, and I trade so infrequently that it shouldn’t matter” is an initial thought that I had when reading this book.

But here’s why you and I should care: We’re the ones getting fucked. Let’s take an example: Your 401(k) buys stocks of Google. Mine does inherently, since I purchase shares of the S&P 500 broad market index, and google is part of that index. Your orders, plus mine, plus those of several thousand others all pool at our custodian, Fidelity. The Fidelity fund manager needs to buy say 10,000 shares of Google and sees on his trading screen that there are currently 50,000 shares of Google offered (available to buy) at $X. So he puts in his order, thinking that he’ll buy 10,000 shares at $X.

Well, because of the tiniest delays in communication between exchanges, HFT firms can detect that there is buying demand in the market once Fidelity (my 401(k) custodian) puts in that buy order. In that fraction of a second between when the buy order first hits an exchange, the original offers to sell at $X disappear, and re-appear at $X + $.01 or $.02 (or some other arbitrary adder). This happens again and again until the orders eventually fill at those higher prices. So even though Fidelity thought it would be able to buy at $X with plenty of liquidity (since, after all, that’s what the exchanges showed), it actually isn’t able to.

Well, our 401(k) purchase order is basically a market order, so we sweep the prices up, paying say $X + $.10 in the process, let’s say. Well, now we just paid $.05 more than fair value, more than we had to. All these little things add up.

In a world where costs very much matter (especially if you are an boglehead / indexer like I am), these costs are HUGE. My expense ratio in my S&P 500 fund at Fidelity says I am only paying .05% . BUT, if you factor in the slippage (how much more we paid for Google in this example over $X), our expense ratio actually ends up being MUCH MORE than we bargained for, which costs us, you and me, a lot in the long run, especially when factoring in compounding gains.

The story

Okay, so we addressed why you should care. Why else would you read this book? Well, for one, it is actually entertaining. Much like Michael Lewis, Scott Patterson does a really good job of illustrating a story when making his points. He does a great job of starting from the beginning, and then building on the reader’s building knowledge base. If you didn’t know anything about HFT when you started, you wouldn’t be at a disadvantage at all. The way he illustrates what is happening, both through his characters and the actions and motivations of said characters, is extremely easy to understand.

And remember, these aren’t fictional characters in a book he’s writing. These are real people. These were real stories. These things really happened.

Josh Levine and Island

The story of how Island got created takes up about ⅓ to ½ of the book, and for good reason. Island is basically the backbone that started HFT. It was the first matching engine that took people completely out of the buy/sell matching equation. Whereas before, you’d have to pass through a human broker or market maker in order to buy/sell anything, and run into human errors (or greed) along the way, Island gave people a way to instantly match buyer and seller with no middleman in the way to skim profits off the top. It was also perfectly scalable so that as more people got into the market of computerized scalping, the matching engine wouldn’t slow down, as the old NYSE or NASDAQ often did.

I do find it very interesting that Josh Levine basically made Island because he saw an extremely inefficient system where middlemen (market makers and specialists on the floor of exchanges) were skimming tons of money from regular people by basically standing in the middle of a buyer and seller and taking a fee. He thought that was inefficient and dumb, and sought to create a way where buyer and seller could find each other without having to cross large bid/ask spreads along the way. He was a strong proponent of decimalization, so that stocks could trade at $X.01, or $X.23 instead of only $X + ⅛ , $X + ¼, etc. I’m only 30, so I can’t remember living in a world where I’d have to buy stocks in increments of ⅛. That seems archaic and bizarre to me, and Josh Levine is a big reason why I don’t live in a world like that. That’s crazy.

But I digress. Basicaly, Levine sought to make a more efficient system, much like I used to try to do and continue to do when I encounter what I think are stupid and inefficient systems at work. And HE DID IT! And along the way, he tried to solve problems, like how to get more liquidity on Island. The result? The maker-taker fee system that the book goes on to describe as a major problem with HFT trades. It seemed to make so much sense at the time; whoops. Unintended consequences.

The story of Island to me is so interesting, both in describing how it came to be, how it unseated the business model of major exchanges like the NASDAQ and the NYSE, the problems it faced as it grew, and ultimately, what happened to its original senior management as it grew up and got bought. Moreover, the description of Josh Levine’s motivations, how he wasn’t motivated by how to make more money, but by how to mold an inefficient market into an efficient one (and bring down entrenched intermediaries in the process), was absolutely fascinating to me. I loved it.

Haim Bodek and special order types

Aside from Josh Levine, the only other person that could be considered a protagonist in this story (if it were fictional, which it’s not) would be Haim Bodek. His story is an interesting one in the book, showing how he ran a very successful HFT firm where he learned how the traditional limit / market orders that basically everyone uses will always lead to getting taken advantage of. His conclusion that you had to know about secret order types that the exchanges don’t publish info about in order to make money (either as a HFT or as a lay trader) is pretty damning.

Because of the special order types that HFT firms use, Haim Bodek concludes that all that visible liquidity is fake. They can step out of the way and cancel their order in the smallest fraction of a second between you submitting your buy/sell order, only to sell to you at a higher price (or buy from you at a lower price) than you had originally shown.

That’s precisely the problem that Michael Lewis describes in his book, Flash Boys. His protagonist trader notices that every time he tries to transact, he transacts at a worse price than he expects.

Bodek’s main conclusion is that it’s not the speed in which HFT firms can trade that is the problem; it is the secret order types that are, that allow HFT to basically make risk free profit at the expense of everyone else.

Many of Haim Bodek’s critics may attack him, saying that he ran his HFT into the ground because he couldn’t keep up with the times, and now his attacks on the industry are just sour grapses. Well, I don’t buy that. Any criticism I see of him tends to concentrate on him as a person and not on his arguments. In fact, the next book I’m reading is by Haim Bodek himself, where he tries to illuminate the problem and explain in further detail what Scott Patterson touched on in this book.

Conclusions

I used to be a proponent of HFT, saying things like “They provide lots of liquidity. See the bid/ask spread on that stock? It’s less than a penny, because of HFT. In the past, that would have been much larger.” Well, turns out I was wrong, and this book is a great tool to illustrate exactly why. More than that, it describes the history behind HFT and the problems inherent with it in an extremely easy to understand and entertaining way. It’s not a textbook that tries to explain things to you in a dry fashion; you learn through the eyes of the players in the story as it develops.

This is 100% the best non-fiction book that I’ve read so far this year. Kudos, Scott Patterson, for shedding light on something that isn’t really that easy to understand. I can’t imagine how hard it was to get the info to write this book.

Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Queda – TwoMorePages Book Review

Left of Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al-Queda – TwoMorePages Book Review

Inspired to read this because of the author’s hilarious responses in his AMA on reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/4dxfoy/iama_former_cia_case_officer_who_recently/), I decided to take a detour from my normal sci-fi reading, and boy am I glad I did. This was an absolutely amazing, wonderful book. I finished it in less than a week because I could hardly put it down.

His writing in his book was even more entertaining than his responses in his AMA. I was truly engrossed in his stories. I celebrated as I read about his triumphs and accomplishments in the field as he developed his skills. I felt for him when he had to deal with problems back home because of his unique job and the fact that had to have a cover. I empathized with his frustration later in his career as the bureaucracy of the CIA stifled his efforts and work.

He really brought me into the story with his writing. It was amazing. I had to remember at times that this is not a fictional story. This shit happenedwhich makes it all the more amazing. Really puts things in perspective when I spend years trying to learn Chinese as an asian kid in America and I’m only barely competent conversationally, and this guy from the Midwest learns freaking Pashtu, and has to re-learn a different dialect of it on the fly when he is put on his first assignment.

The book really opened my eyes to the life of a case officer overseas, what he dealt with on a daily basis, but more importantly, what the landscape is over there. The media paints a picture of our enemies in the middle east as religious zealots that are motivated entirely by misguided notions of their religion, but the way that Douglas Laux tells it, a lot of them are just motivated by survival. And so he’s able to turn some of them into intelligence assets, including some very important ones in the Taliban structure, just by giving them money, earning their trust, and promising them and their families better lives. That’s mind boggling.

More than that, Douglas Laux’s perspective on the political climate over there was fascinating. It’s too bad the CIA censors got to some of his cooler revaluations, including one where he accuses a country (whose identity we can’t know) of openly being our allies to our face, but then directly funding our enemies and supplying them with IEDs and ways to kill our soldiers. My guess? Has to be Saudi Arabia, but I guess we’ll never know. This book has inspired me to learn more about the history and politics of the Middle East, especially since it seems to be the epicenter of so much of our world conflict nowadays.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone look for an entertaining read. His writing style is great (and sometimes hilarious!); you’re going to love it and the pages will just fly by. And bonus, you might end up learning something about a part of the world that most of us don’t think about even though it’s pretty damn important to world affairs.