Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Longmire Mysteries


I haven't read the whole series, and have only linked the first book.  They are interconnected, so worth reading in order.

These aren't westerns in the sense of a story set in the 1800's, but they are very, very much about The West.

The succinct description: county sheriff Walt Longmire, his best friend Henry Standing Bear, and an engaging supporting cast fight crime in a small town in Wyoming.

The descriptions of the plains and mountains of Wyoming are worth it alone, and the stories are pretty entertaining as well.  The author manages to capture modern life in a fairly remote part of the US.  At the same time, these are not formulaic books and have plenty of humor sprinkled throughout.

These might be a good read even for those who normally are not fans of classic westerns.

There's also a TV series, although I think the books are better - they are richer and more nuanced.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Burnt Creek

Burnt Creek

I like to read westerns for entertainment, but have always thought it'd be cool to read a few more about the bits of Oregon that are "the west".  There seem to be very few set there, so this book was a pleasant surprise.  It's set near Bend, Oregon, and is a collection of short stories about  local character who runs a local general store.

I'm generally not a short story fan, as they seem to be kind of short and blunt compared to the long reads I like, but these were enjoyable.  If you're not into westerns or Oregon though, this book probably isn't for you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future

Neal Stephenson is one of those authors who could write pretty much anything, and I'd buy it, which is what made me buy this anthology.

This collection of short stories was supposed to "reignite the iconic and optimistic visions of the golden age of science fiction".  That sounded pretty cool to me; there is too much "doom and gloom" these days.  If you want to read something depressing, open up a newspaper and think about all the ruined lives and all that will never be for the various victims of misfortune and disaster.  I want to read something uplifting in my spare time.

Unfortunately, this book does not really deliver, outside of a few stories that were good, like Neal Stephenson's.  Some of them were kind of trite, and many felt a bit preachy about current "doom & gloom" topics like global warming.  I'm not one to deny what scientists are telling us, but I read these stories hoping for an optimistic view of people solving problems.

I suppose part of the problem is that I'm just not a fan of short stories; they don't give the author much time to really create much depth, so they tend to bludgeon you over the head with a Message, or otherwise be very direct, compared to a novel length work, which can afford to have a richer plot and characters.  Combine that with some of the authors who had various axes to grind, and I felt like the Messages were taking a back seat to the stories.

I'd give this book a pass.  Luckily, Neal Stephenson is coming out with a new book sometime this year!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street

This book comes highly recommended by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, which is pretty good as recommendations go, is pretty good.

It's well written, with an easygoing, yet intelligent style that holds one's interest. The stories, while somewhat data, have a lot of human factors that are still very relevant today.

Having been written nearly 50 years ago, the book is somewhat dated, and it shows in places.  There's a bit about the stock ticker falling hours behind actual trading which sure seems quaint in this era of quants and high frequency trading.  The place of women and minorities in the world of yesteryear is also visible, although hardly the fault of the author.

There are several stories, about companies, the stock market, and about foreign exchange in a a day and age when currencies did not float freely, but were pegged to the dollar within set ranges.

There were some good quotes:
One of de la Vega’s observations about the Amsterdam traders was that they were “very clever in inventing reasons” for a sudden rise or fall in stock prices
This is still a great description of the financial press, isn't it?  Lots of after-the-fact descriptions of why things happened.
Large corporations are often accused of rigging markets, administering prices, and otherwise dictating to the consumer [it observed]. And yesterday Ford Motor Company announced its two-year experiment with the medium-priced Edsel has come to an end … for want of buyers. All this is quite a ways from auto makers being able to rig markets or force consumers to take what they want them to take.… And the reason, simply, is that there is no accounting for tastes.… When it comes to dictating, the consumer is the dictator without peer.
There's a chapter on Xerox, the copier company
The most common malfunction is a jamming of the supply of copy paper
That bit reminded me of how much computers have improved over the years - and how much printers and copiers and the like are still so often broken and frustrating.  Although... even with copiers' many faults, they are better these days!
A bad mispuff can occasionally put a piece of the paper in contact with hot parts, igniting it and causing an alarming cloud of white smoke to issue from the machine; in such a case the operator is urged to do nothing, or, at most, to use a small fire extinguisher that is attached to it, since the fire burns itself out comparatively harmlessly if left alone, whereas a bucket of water thrown over a 914 may convey potentially lethal voltages to its metal surface.
The Xerox part of the book has a few interesting predictions:
Various magazine articles have predicted nothing less than the disappearance of the book as it now exists, and pictured the library of the future as a sort of monster computer capable of storing and retrieving the contents of books electronically and xerographically. The “books” in such a library would be tiny chips of computer film—“editions of one.”
I read the book on my Kindle!

On race and labor relations in Xerox, which was a fairly progressive place, for the time, as described in the book:
For example, we’ve tried, without much fanfare, to equip some Negro youths to take jobs beyond sweeping the floor and so on. The program required complete coöperation from our union, and we got it. But I’ve learned that, in subtle ways, the honeymoon is over. There’s an undercurrent of opposition. Here’s something started, then, that if it grows could confront us with a real business problem. If it becomes a few hundred objectors instead of a few dozen, things might even come to a strike, and in such a case I hope we and the union leadership would stand up and fight. But I don’t really know. You can’t honestly predict what you’d do in a case like that. I think I know what we’d do.”
The union's antipathy to black people taking better jobs is "interesting".

This is relevant to the crowd here in Italy hoping to return to the Lira and abandon the Euro:
Devaluation, as the most heroic and most dangerous of remedies for a sick currency, is rightly feared. By making the devaluing country’s goods cheaper to others, it boosts exports, and thus reduces or eliminates a deficit in international accounts, but at the same time it makes both imports and domestic goods more expensive at home
All in all, I really enjoyed the writing style, but - and it could just be me - I'm not sure I absorbed anything terribly profound or lasting from the book.  It's an entertaining read, and there are bits and pieces of wisdom throughout, so I'd recommend it if you like to read a lot, but if you're looking for a quick read with more tactical advice about the world of business, this isn't it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies

I'm fascinated by odd bits of geography, and had high hopes for this book.  It did have a nice list of interesting places around the world, but on the whole fell a bit flat for a few reasons:

  • Some of the verbiage was way over the top:
What brought the group together was an understanding of urban exploration as a kind of geographical version of surrealist automatic writing. Our real-world adventures were little more than pegs on which to hang our interpretative essays, which usually came with pendulous bibliographies featuring situationists and Magical Marxists.


Today the pain and humiliation of subject peoples has been fashioned into a series of sub-Hegelian clichés about respect for “others” and respect for “difference.”

  •  I'd heard of most of the odd places, and while he did add some interesting details about a few, there was nothing in the book that added to my sense of discovering of something new.
  • Some of the selected places were not things I would have thought about as particularly interesting, such as a traffic island near a freeway.  I suppose they're worth contemplating, but - and I apologize for the spoiler - there were no big revelations about traffic islands, and I read that bit as quickly as I could.
The concept was very promising, but the end result was a bit too philosophical for my tastes.  I'd pass on this one.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

"Epic" gets thrown around a lot these days.  The journey in this book does the word justice.

A 400-strong Spanish expedition sets out to conquer and colonize what is now northern Mexico in 1527, but due to bad navigation and the strength of the eastbound stream in the Gulf of Mexico, land in northern Florida instead.  After 8 years of wandering and enslavement, on the pacific coast of Mexico, the four survivors of the expedition finally regained contact with the Spanish empire.

Separated from their ships, harassed by natives using guerrilla tactics and not having found a land of gold and plenty, the members of the expedition - already reduced in number - first escaped Florida on improvised rafts that took them to the barrier islands of Texas.  Without their guns or any other military advantage over the natives, desperately hungry and thirsty, the survivors were enslaved by local Indians.  Slowly their numbers dwindled until only 4 remained, who were held in slavery for many years.  After finally escaping, and making their way as medicine men, they returned to Spanish civilization and wrote two accounts of their journey.

This book is a modern retelling of their story, full of interesting details and historical context, as well as musings about what kind of mental strength it must have taken to survive for so long in a hostile, foreign land.  Beyond the psychological aspects of their journey, it's a fascinating story if you consider how much territory they covered, in an age where most of North and South America were very much still terra incognita. Columbus had only (re)discovered a few islands in the Caribbean less than 40 years earlier.   Cabeza de Vaca (the name means "cow head") and his companions must have witnessed much of native life that would soon vanish forever under the twin onslaught of disease and conquest.

I had always thought of the Spanish Conquistadors as having all been rather brutal in their treatment of the inhabitants of the "new" world, but apparently this was not so, even if dissenters did not get their way:
Las Casas pressed ahead with his campaign. His solution to the Indian problem was both disarmingly simple and extremely radical: “The Indians need to be placed beyond the grasp of the Spaniards, because no remedy that leaves them in Spanish hands will stop their annihilation.”

Instead of bringing the Indians into the Christian fold through violence, the healers [Cabeza de Vaca and his companions] dreamed of accomplishing this grandiose project peacefully and humanely.
Indeed, later in life, Cabeza de Vaca returned to the Americas - this time near present-day Buenos Aires, but, in part because of his benevolent attitude towards the indigenous population, he was deposed as the local ruler and shipped back to Spain.

I found the book and its subject to be fascinating, and would certainly recommend it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The 7 Day Startup: You Don't Learn Until You Launch

The 7 Day Startup: You Don't Learn Until You Launch

It's getting faster, cheaper and easier to start a bootstrapped business all the time.  This book pushes the concept even further with the idea of launching a business in a week.

To be blunt about it, I think Rob Walling's Start Small, Stay Small is the book to beat in this space, and I'm not sure this one does - Robs seems to have more specific, tactical advice.  However, 7 Day Startup does have a lot of useful suggestions, it's a quick read, and it's a bit more up to date than Rob's book, so overall I thought it was pretty good.  Another plus is that it really is meant for people interested in bootstrapping a company from nothing, rather than the VC-funded Silicon Valley types, who are operating on what seems like another planet, at times.  There are fewer books aimed at the bootstrapping crowd.

One thing I liked about this book is that it mentions a lot of Dan's failures. Actually, I don't like the fact that he failed, as he seems like a nice guy, but some people tend to only include the positive bits of their story, making it look like they moved from success to success.  You get to thinking that they're not normal and were destined for success, so maybe their advice is not that useful to a regular guy such as yourself.  A lot of the things he worked on that were not successful are very illustrative of things to avoid as a bootstrapper.

At $4, the book is worth it if it saves you even a few hours of hassle or problems.  I liked the bit about problem customers:
My team prides themselves in sniffing out potentially difficult customers prior to sign-up and scaring them off.
He doesn't, however, give specific advice on how to do this, or even how they do it in their particular business.

Additionally, he has a bunch of resources associated with the book here: