Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: Young Money

Published 22 February 2014 in the Winnipeg Free Press:
 
Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits
By Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 320 pages, $30

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

The Wall Street analysts at the heart of Young Money don't party as hard as The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort, but then they're working with much smaller disposable incomes.

After all, the highest-paid among the eight recent college grads shadowed by journalist Kevin Roose pulls in maybe $150,000 in a year -- big bucks by most people's standards but a small fraction of what Belfort scammed in his days of living high.

This is the second book by Roose, a business writer for New York magazine.

He followed the young financiers for three years, beginning at their recruitment by investment banks in 2010 -- less than two years after the great crash of September 2008 -- and found them to be appreciative of their remuneration but generally unhappy with their work lives.

Young Money is entertaining, helped in good part by the author's remarkable adeptness at weaving several narrative threads without confusing the reader.

Wall Street banks expect their new recruits to work 100-hour weeks and be available at any time; as a result, first- and second-year analysts tend to be highly stressed and lack robust social lives outside the office.

By the third year of Roose's project, some of his eight subjects have left the banks, a couple have left the finance sector altogether, and all seem at least a little weary and disillusioned. Pay aside, the Wall Street life is a hard life for rookies.

Short, breezy chapters introduce us to and then follow the odysseys of the recruits. All start their jobs with an eagerness that quickly dissipates as demands wear them down.

Chelsea, for instance, begins her time at Merrill Lynch as a diligent member of the firm's public finance team, but quickly grows frustrated with working long hours under a high-strung control freak who doesn't have her back when she makes a mistake.

Jeremy works at Goldman Sachs, where his days are made miserable by a boss with an explosive temper; after his first year, he notices that his own temper has shortened and he's often unkind.

Chelsea and Jeremy both leave their employers. When Jeremy quits, he writes on Facebook that "the nightmare is over."

Roose admits that his pool of "conflicted" sources may well be an unrepresentative sample.

"My banker sources were atypical by definition -- daring or disillusioned enough to be willing to risk getting fired by talking to me, and kind and introspective enough to spend hours at a time answering probing questions about their lives," he writes.

The tracking period of the recruits runs through the Occupy Wall Street days of 2011-2012. Roose's subjects give little thought to the Occupy movement, though none of them are entirely dismissive towards the protesters' issues.

A couple of them do wonder aloud, however, if their work is doing much good at all for society.

Roose finds it sad that so many bright people from prestigious universities get drawn in by Wall Street's money appeal every year.

He worries that Wall Street will change some of the "socially conscious" young people he met, and change them for the worse.

He wants to see the allure of Wall Street fade so that more "highly creative young people use their abilities for purposes other than padding an investment bank's bottom line."

There's nothing deep or groundbreaking about Young Money, unless you're surprised to learn that Wall Street is a high-stress work environment.

Nevertheless, it's a thoroughly readable look at what it's like to toil as a junior analyst for a big investment bank. It gets a "buy" rating.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: The Witness Wore Red

Published 5 October 2013 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice
By Rebecca Musser with M. Bridget Cook
Grand Central Publishing, 340 pages, $29

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

No fiction writer, not even one as darkly imaginative as Stephen King, could create a villain creepier than Warren Jeffs.

The 57-year-old convicted rapist is the feature miscreant in Rebecca Musser's engrossing memoir of life in a closed society of polygamist Mormons.

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) members, living mainly on a patch of desert straddling the Utah-Arizona border, observe every pronouncement he sends to them from inside a Texas penitentiary where he is serving a life sentence.

FLDS members cling to the doctrine of "plural" or "celestial" marriage, a principle discarded by the mainstream Mormon church in 1890. They believe a righteous man can secure a place in the highest level of heaven by taking three or more wives.

In clear, crisp prose, Musser and co-author Bridget Cook take us on a journey from growing up in a household with more than 20 other children and more than one mom, to being a teenage bride for an 85-year-old man, to escape and a life of advocacy for the oppressed and enslaved.

This insider's account includes truly shocking details on how the sect robs girls of their freedom and dignity.

Perhaps the most disturbing content is a partial transcript of an audio recording of Jeffs having sex with a 12-year-old wife while other wives watched. In comparison, the renegade sect leader Roman Grant in the HBO series Big Love was a choir boy.

But Musser and Cook aim for inspiration rather than sensationalism, with themes of faith and empowerment.

Musser was born Rebecca Wall, the fifth of 14 children from her father's second wife. Her father eventually had three wives and 24 children.

Shortly after her 19th birthday in 1995, Musser became the 19th wife of Rulon Jeffs, who was president of the FLDS and Warren's father.

They lived in the Jeffs family's sprawling compound in Hildale, Utah, and Rulon added many more young wives before his death at age 92 in September 2002.

Warren repeatedly admonished Musser that it was her religious duty to obey and please the old church leader in every way, including sexually.

Two months after Rulon's death, Warren as the new FLDS president told Musser she must remarry.

He said her new husband could be him, and the possibility wasn't far-fetched since he had already married some of his father's other young widows.

In response, she quickly planned and executed an escape from Hildale.

She and a young FLDS man named Ben Musser fled to Oregon and married.

They're now divorced but both live in Idaho, where they are parents to a son and daughter.

She has testified against Jeffs and other FLDS men to help bring them to justice for their crimes against girls as young as 12.

She wore red each time she testified against Jeffs because he had banned FLDS members from wearing the colour.

As founder of a non-profit foundation called Claim Red, she is now a voice for victims of human trafficking.

A younger sister, Elissa Wall, co-authored the 2008 book Stolen Innocence about her own experiences in and escape from the FLDS.

Atheists hoping The Witness Wore Red slams faith will be disappointed. Musser rejects leadership by one man, but not religion and spirituality.

It's also notable that the word "cult" appears in the subtitle but nowhere in the memoir itself, as Musser remains respectful and sympathetic toward the community she left -- even though much of that community despises her as a traitor.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Denial

Published 1 June 2013 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind
By Ajit Varki and Danny Brower
Twelve, 384 pages, $30

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

This thought-provoking work of popular science contends that the human brain must have found a way to push thoughts of death aside before the species could develop into fully aware, intellectually robust beings.
That's debatable, but the authors certainly present an intriguing theory, and in mostly jargon-free prose that non-scientists can follow.
Denial's provenance, as explained in the book's introduction, is interesting on its own.
Ajit Varki, a physician and professor at the University of California, San Diego, met University of Arizona geneticist Danny Brower at a biology conference in 2005.
They had a private conversation in which Brower explained his theory about a critical point in the evolution of our species.
Varki found his own thoughts returning to the idea over the ensuing two years, and eventually decided to call Brower for further discussion.
Brower had, however, died of a rare blood vessel disease, his theory not developed into a full-length book.
Now India native Varki has finished the job, having polished and added to a manuscript Brower left behind.
The pair contend that, at some juncture early in our evolutionary saga, our ancestors had to have developed the neurological wiring for reality denial. They say it was absolutely essential.
Here's why.
An animal with full awareness of itself and the world around it would understand that its own death is inevitable.
The fully aware animal, say the authors, would be unable to cope and survive with the acknowledgement of mortality.
The mortality-conscious individual's behaviour would be too weird for others in its species, and it would therefore not mate -- an "evolutionary dead end," since it would produce no offspring.
To avoid this dead end, Varki and Brower contend, Homo sapiens needed to have evolved the ability to deny or repress unpleasant bits of reality. In particular, to deny the reality of mortality.
The pair defines denial as a "defence mechanism used to reduce anxiety by denying thoughts, feelings or facts that are consciously intolerable."
They say the capacity for reality denial allowed us to "become really, really smart" compared to other animals, while any individual of another species who developed full awareness would been doomed to hit the brick wall at the end of the evolutionary dead end.
Varki and Brower present (to quote Charles Darwin) "one long argument" for their speculative theory, but admit they can't "prove" it.
Even assuming that it's such a bad thing to realize one is going to die, couldn't there be other ways to avoid the dead end?
Isn't it possible, for example, that the drive to pursue pleasure and avoid pain is just so much stronger than worries about death? Or that social or community priorities, such as the support and defence of one's family or group, override mortality concerns?
But you don't have to buy into the central thesis to appreciate Denial. There's plenty more to keep the reader engaged.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opportunity in a Ring

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Spring 2013:

The Klondike Gold Rush is undoubtedly the most storied chapter in Canadian mining history. Tens of thousands of prospectors migrated to western Yukon in the 1890s after news of a massive gold discovery in the Klondike region hit economic hubs such as Seattle and San Francisco. Rich deposits did make some of those prospectors wealthy men, but most left the Klondike just as poor as when they came in, if not poorer.
Today’s interest in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire is similar in some ways. Again there’s a frenzy over mineral riches in a remote area of Canada. And, as in the great gold rush of yore, it’s largely over one mineral – in this case, chromite. But that’s where the similarities more or less end.
For one thing, the word “rush” seems out-of-place in today’s regulated mining sector. Anyone who wants to start mining at a particular site has regulatory hurdles to overcome and communities to consult. Getting from the idea of a mine to an actual mine is a challenging, years-long process.
Still, there are many companies willing to endure that process in order to tap into the apparently great mineral wealth beneath the Ring of Fire’s surface of wetlands, rocks and trees. There are, after all, riches below the surface and considerable profits to be made.

The Ring

The Ring of Fire is a crescent-shaped area approximately 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, in the James Bay lowlands north of the Albany River. The Attawapiskat River runs through some of it. Predominantly muskeg, the Ring is more than 5,100 sq. km of land hitherto untouched by industry. Wildlife in the region includes some species at risk – black terns, bald eagles, wolverines and woodland caribou among them. Muskeg, birds and furry mammals aren’t what make the area so intriguing to miners, of course. The big attraction in this case is chromite, a dark iron chromium oxide that’s valued for its resistance to high temperatures. Chromite is a key ingredient in the stainless steel that our pots and pans are made of. It’s also commonly used for protective coating of automobile parts. There is at present no chromite mine in North America.
The sizable chromite deposits are vestiges of geological events that occurred 2.7 billion years ago. Magma containing chromium rose from the Earth’s mantle and dissolved iron-rich rock in the crust. The result was crystallized chromite. The same thing, more or less, happened in many places on our planet, but for some reason it left especially rich deposits of chromite in the Ring of Fire.
Early in the current century, De Beers Canada (which operates the Victor Diamond Mine to the east) found significant copper and zinc deposits there. Subsequent exploration uncovered chromite deposits that rival those at any location in South Africa, the world’s leading producer. Other minerals were also found, including nickel, gold and platinum-group metals. Because it was a somewhat ring-shaped “hot” exploration region, and (some say) because a key player was a Johnny Cash fan, it was dubbed the Ring of Fire.
The Ontario government said in May 2012 that Ohio-based Cliffs Natural Resources is expected to spend more than $3 billion on getting chromite out of the Ring and to market. That sum includes $1.85 billion for a processing facility in Sudbury. “This is very, very important, not only for Sudbury but for the entire province,” then-Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci said at a news conference in the nickel city.
Other companies are also keen on getting a piece of the Ring. Toronto-headquartered Noront Resources is focused on developing its Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper-PGM project in the area, as well as a high-grade chromite deposit dubbed Blackbird. Bold Ventures, also out of Toronto, has reached an agreement with KWG Resources under which Bold will operate exploration at Koper Lake and KWG will fund the exploration. Dozens of other companies have staked thousands of claims.
But the odyssey from exploration to mining won’t be smooth sailing. Environmentalists, politicians and aboriginal groups have all expressed concern over mining companies’ Ring ambitions.

Challenges

Indeed, opposition politicians were quick to pounce on the fact that Bartolucci’s Sudbury news conference had no First Nations representation. “If First Nations aren’t part of (development), it won’t be happening,” Norm Miller, MPP for Parry Sound-Muskoka, told the Toronto Star. “You could also ask why was the federal government not part of (the news conference). There are federal and provincial reviews. There are still a lot of challenges going forward … despite it sounding like the ground was being broken today.”
Noting that the all-weather road Cliffs wants to build from the town of Nakina to its Black Thor (McFaulds Lake) project would run through sensitive wildlands, a leading conservation group said the plan lacked proper assessment of environmental impacts. “The most important decision is the location of infrastructure. Where, how much, and what? These are questions we needed Ontario to ask,” said Janet Sumner of CPAWS Wildland League.
Communities in the Ring of Fire’s vicinity include Webequie and Nibinamik (Summer Beaver) First Nations to the west, Marten Falls First Nation to the south, and Neskantaga First Nation to the southwest. All are members of Matawa First Nations, and they are remote reserves lacking road access. In January 2011 Matawa named Raymond Ferris, former chief of Constance Lake First Nation, as its Ring of Fire Coordinator responsible for seeing that member communities participate in and benefit from Ring development.
First Nations see mining as a provider of jobs and development in reserves with extremely high unemployment and vexing social problems that include high rates of drug addiction and youth suicide. They also recognize the social benefit of a road finally connecting them to the outside world, and for that reason Marten Falls wants the road rerouted to hook up with its 300 residents.
But Matawa First Nations are also concerned about water pollution and other impacts on the area’s ecology. “We know we’re going to get some benefits once they start development,” Marten Falls Chief Eli Moonias told the Canadian Press last year. “We know that in some ways we’ll be involved as well. The issue is the environment.”
Moonias said a road connection could help Marten Falls improve its drinking-water situation by enabling easier access for experts and suppliers who could help fix the reserve’s water-quality problems. Marten Falls’ drinking-water supply is in need of major repair.
The Province signalled its keen interest in seeing development move forward by creating a Ring of Fire Secretariat within the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. The federal government has designated Treasury Board President Tony Clement as its point man for progress in the area.
Cliffs aims to begin production at the Black Thor deposit by late 2016 even though the company’s President and CEO, Joseph Carrabba, told analysts last October that cost pressures and other factors could push the start to 2017.
“Right now, the target remains 2016 and it’s a schedule that’s got some risk of slippage,” Cliffs Senior Vice-President Bill Boor told a Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience in early November.
Factors that could delay production include environmental assessment processes and trying to reach working agreements with First Nations. Boor said discussions with First Nations are progressing but “we need to move the relationship to the point where they’re willing to work with us in this project. We’re not asking them to agree with the project. We’re asking them to work with us to figure it out. And we do need a bit of breakthrough there.”
In an email to this author, Cliffs Public Affairs Representative Jennifer Mihalcin said the company must “finalize a definitive deal” with Ontario before it can begin the construction phase of its ferrochrome project. Although that deal was not yet done as of March 2013, and despite the political uncertainties associated with an impending provincial election, she reiterated the company’s expectation that Black Thor operations will “commence at the end of 2016.”
In an interview with the Financial Post, Noront’s then-CEO Wes Hanson said Noront could conceivably begin commercial production at Eagle’s Nest by 2016 or 2017. He said Noront would use the road Cliffs wants built and pay for road use in proportion to how much freight it hauls down the route. He explained that Noront was planning to produce 150,000 tonnes of concentrate annually while Cliffs was planning to produce about 20 times as much.
In short, there’s still much work to be done before anyone gets rich on the Ring of Fire.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Big Machine for Big Jobs

Published in BC Y-Dig 2013:
Kamloops Augering & Boring Ltd. (KAB) is ready for the really big jobs with the world’s largest auger boring machine.

The American Augers 84/96-1800 is capable of boring 96-inch-diameter holes at 1.8-million-pound thrust. Weighing about 30 tonnes, it’s 17 feet long, nine feet wide and more than nine feet tall.

The standard model has a 300-horsepower Caterpillar diesel engine and a Quik Tran system, exclusively from American Augers, that allows for fast return with up to 10,000 pounds of push/pull at high speed. Quik Tran “makes for easier machine operation in challenging work climates or conditions,” according to the manufacturer.

The 84/96, like other American Augers machines, also has a Quik Split frame design that allows separation of the rig into sections for easier placement and removal at work areas.

KAB president Malcolm Bachand told Underground Construction magazine the 84/96 was purchased “to install culverts on a large railroad project.” He was referring to repairs made in the summer of 2011 after an extreme rainfall event in the Peace River area, where KAB installed a new 72-inch-wide and 220-foot-long culvert at the Canadian National Railway’s Chetwynd yard. (An article about the Chetwynd project appeared in last year’s Y-Dig.)

“There is no comparison when it comes to the magnitude of its power when compared to the remainder of our fleet,” KAB’s Harry Dickinson said of the big machine this past March. However, he added, loading and unloading can be difficult due to its gargantuan size.

Dickinson said KAB does benefit by having the 84/96. “Installing and cleaning larger-diameter pipe has become easier. Typically, we would have to use a smaller ABM and significantly smaller auger to clean anything over 72 inches.

“The biggest benefit will be using our larger hammers with our 84/96 machine for installing up to 120-inch-diameter casings.

Established in 1976, Kamloops Augering & Boring provides comprehensive services in trenchless construction. Its services and expertise include tunneling, large-diameter pipe ramming, auger boring, rock boring, pilot tube microtunneling and horizontal pile driving.

American Augers manufactures auger boring machines, drilling rigs and related products at a 141,000-square-foot facility in West Salem, Ohio. The company proclaims on its website that its core value is “having products developed by a can-do workforce that focuses on mechanical, technological and customer-based design improvements.”

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Beyond Belief

Published 2 March 2013 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape
By Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer
William Morrow, 404 pages, $19

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

To most of us, Scientology is the peculiar religion that counts movie star Tom Cruise among its adherents.

Jenna Hill knows it as the church that robbed her of her childhood and tore her family asunder.

The apostate Scientologist tells her fascinating story of survival in Beyond Belief, a long memoir that captivates the reader from cover to cover.

Hill is the San Diego-based niece of Scientology leader David Miscavige. Her parents were also high-ranking executives in the church for 15 years until leaving it in 2000.

When she was just seven years old in 1991 she signed a billion-year contract to serve the church in its elite Sea Org.

Yes, that's right: a billion years. Sea Org members are expected to serve for as long as they can in their current lives, and resume service in subsequent ones.

Hill says she "felt no hesitation" in signing the contract. Her age was practically irrelevant, she explains, because Scientology holds that every person is an ancient soul (or "thetan") "capable of the same responsibilities" at any age.

That reasoning justified putting children through physical labour at the Sea Org Cadets camp where she lived during what should have been her school years.

The daily routine at the California camp, called "the Ranch," included an early morning wake-up call, a military-style "muster" or assembly, a few hours of labour (carrying old railway ties, for example), some secular schooling in the afternoon without teachers, and Scientology indoctrination in the evening.

From wake-up call to the end of evening sessions, it was a 14-hour day with no time for the sort of play or recreation a normal child would enjoy.

Her parents, Ron and Elizabeth Miscavige, lived several kilometres away and saw her for only a few hours every weekend.

Hill left the Ranch in her middle teens to work and study Scientology at the church's "Flag Land Base" in Florida, where she was routinely interrogated, bullied and reprimanded.

Any deviation from church policy or doctrine was committed at risk of being reported to the bosses and subjected to a "security check," essentially a session of badgering that would end only when she admitted to some sin (or "overt" in church terms) against Scientology.

Needless to say, she learned to keep her thoughts to herself and be careful in the presence of other Sea Org members.

The church flew her back to California when her parents exited, and gave her the option of leaving to live with them.

She refused, largely because she felt too committed to Scientology -- "brainwashed," she admits now -- to leave it.

Another factor in her decision was that she was 16 at the time, and leaving the church would have also meant enrolling in school. She knew her education wasn't up to snuff.

Hill finally reached her breaking point when the church tried to prevent her marriage to Dallas, a fellow Sea Org member, and then tried to keep them apart after they married.

She tried to "route out" of the Sea Org on good terms with the church, but those efforts were met with hostility and harassment.

It was only after leaving Scientology that she learned of some of its wackier beliefs, such as the story of a galactic overlord dumping aliens into Earth volcanoes millions of years ago.

She co-founded a website for ex-Scientologists in 2008.

Beyond Belief comes soon after Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright's Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief was published to much fanfare south of the border. Due to Canada's more plaintiff-friendly libel laws, Going Clear isn't available in Canadian bookstores.

Hill's book is not only a good substitute, it's a terrific tome in its own right. Interesting, informative and accessible, this insider's story is well worth the price.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Narrow perspective harms war correspondent's memoir

Published 1 December 2012 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World
By Michael Petrou
Dundurn, 220 pages, $25

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

The prologue for Canadian journalist Michael Petrou's war-zones memoir seems to signal that the book will be a screed against the scourge of militant Islam.

He writes of the "spectre of Islamist extremism," words that remind the reader of how Marx and Engels wrote of 19th-century Europe being spooked by "the spectre of communism."

He certainly lays his biases on the table as he decries the terrible Islamists who are "like radical Marxists" and says their hateful ideology is "like fascism and communism."

Also in the prologue, he mentions western soldiers, politicians, diplomats and "people outside embassies" that he spoke to, but no learned critical observers, as his chief sources.

One could be excused for expecting, after reading the prologue, a badly biased book based entirely on the sorts of conventional sources that lazy journalists use to lard their daily output. And one wouldn't be entirely wrong.

First War is biased, though not too badly, and it is poorer for the author's refusal to consider viewpoints much outside his narrow perspective. But it turns out to be not as tedious and shallow as its prologue suggests.

It is, to be blunt, not especially thoughtful or well written. Nor does it offer much, aside from the Maclean's reporter's particular war stories, that hasn't been presented elsewhere. But it is entertaining in spots.

There are plenty of tales from Petrou's visits to Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and Israel, plus an unsuccessful attempt at getting into Iraq via Turkey.

The reader meets some interesting people in these stories, such as the Afghan man who once was thrown in jail by the Taliban for teaching schoolchildren the words Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism -- not the religions, just the words.

Then there are the Iranian dissidents who risk incarceration and torture by meeting with Petrou in Tehran.

One destination outside the Middle East is New York City, where he predictably describes the burg's firefighters as "brave" and "selfless."

He writes of America's "terrorist problem," and it surely has one, but nowhere in First War does he admit that the U.S. might in any way have done things to inspire terrorism against it.

When in Israel, Petrou is told by a militant Jewish West Bank settler that Palestinians didn't live in the area until the state of Israel was created. The assertion is left uncorrected until 14 pages later.

Petrou signals his biases when he challenges a Palestinian Muslim leader much more strongly than he challenges any of his Israeli sources.

This book does not question the wisdom or ethics of the western occupation of Afghanistan, nor does it offer any serious appraisal of the Iraq incursion.

Petrou says he was in favour of the latter to liberate Iraqis from a terrible dictator, and doesn't seem to have given more than the slightest consideration for the legal and ethical case against it.

Noam Chomsky and Gwynne Dyer would not have been around for face-to-face interviews while Petrou was in war zones, of course, but he could have read some of their work to re-examine his biases.

He seems like a bright guy -- he went to Oxford for graduate studies -- so he likely has read at least a little Chomsky. Still, there's no sign in this book that he gave it much thought or even understood it.

War correspondents go into places where many of us would refuse to tread, and for that they deserve our admiration.

But that doesn't mean they can write excellent books. In this case, the war correspondent didn't.