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July 03, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

I did a lot of reading last month while on vacation (the Kindle once again proved invaluable). Most of the stuff I read was just light escapist junk: thrillers, pulp sci-fi stuff, stuff like that. However, I did bring along some slightly deeper reading as well.

I read Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. In spite of the rather hysterical title, the book actually fills a hole in previous reporting on the mortgage crisis of 2008 and the events leading up to it -- particularly the role played by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. There was plenty of stupidity and heedlessness to be found on Wall Street, no doubt, but much reportage has downplayed or even ignored the ruinous role played by the quasi-governmental agencies. This book does a good job of showing how these agencies spent years building a political machine that would be impervious to regulation -- either by co-opting the regulators themselves, or through a formidable lobbying arm that would tar opponents as being against the "American dream" of home-ownership. The book is far more serious and well-researched than the hysterical title indicates, and I recommend it to people who want a better picture of what caused the mortgage meltdown. (Phil Angelides would have done well to research this topic before issuing his biased report that shunted all blame on Wall Street while nearly completely ignoring the huge rule played by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the fiasco.)

In a book thread some time back we discussed Eric Chaisson's The Hubble Wars, which in my opinion is one of the best technical histories you can find. But that reminded me of another great book about a big telescope: Ronald Florence's The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope. Florence does a wonderful job of telling the story of how George Ellery Hale pushed the project through to completion despite many obstacles: monetary, technical, and even mental. (My favorite story from this book is that of Milton Humason, who started out on the project as a mule-driver and ended by becoming an astronomer on the big telescope he helped to build.)

I did a little stargazing of my own while on vacation, by the way, and I once again found Terence Dickinson's The Backyard Astronomer's Guide to be an invaluable map to the celestial highways.

What has everyone else been reading?

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posted by Monty at 08:20 AM

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