Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Heirs of Empire

Heirs of Empire

This book is not one with mind-bending new science fiction concepts - it's more of a "space opera" with a lot of cliches.  But it's a good, fun story, and the cliches are kind of mixed and matched with original bits and pieces into something that's new and - I thought - very entertaining.  There's some Star Wars there, some of the pirate movies I used to watch as a kid, some Dune, and it all works well because they are tried and true story elements that people have always liked.  Throw in some cool, futuristic tech, and a plot with lots of action, and it's a great book to read for enjoyment.

If you want hard science fiction, this isn't it, but if you want a very colorful, interesting world with action and adventure, it's a good book.  Indeed, the author leaves a lot of things unexplained, so I'm eagerly awaiting future installments set in the same world.

I enjoyed some of Evan Currie's earlier books too, but to me it felt like this one kicked it up a notch.  Given my tastes, I'd give it five stars.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite authors: I'd buy pretty much anything he writes.

This book was just not one I loved, though.

First of all, the first two thirds of the book is pretty depressing.  The entire population of the earth, outside of a few survivors in space, is wiped out in a massive fiery apocalypse when innumerable pieces of the moon come crashing down.  There is some interesting, and fairly detailed and realistic space science fiction regarding the survivors and how they cling to life in space , but the overall gloominess is aptly described by Cory Doctorow:
Stephenson builds up a sense of brutal inevitability, of humanity's insignificance in the cosmos that had me putting the book down for hours at a time, unable to read on (but my curiosity always overcame my sorrow). From: 
The final portion of the book, when humanity is rebuilding, is more positive in its outlook, and much more speculative science fiction.  It seemed too brief though, and leaves a lot of threads hanging.  Perhaps because the first part of the book didn't put me in a particularly positive frame of mind, I found myself more skeptical of some elements of the world Stephenson creates, and the events that lead to it and within it.

If you're already a Stephenson fan: you'll probably want to read it.
If not: read one of his other books like Cryptonimicon.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

My biggest problem with business books is too much fluff around a simple core idea.  This book did well from that point of view: it didn't feel padded.  It was relatively short and to the point, and was interesting throughout.

I'm not sure I agree with everything he has to say, but that's vastly preferable to a bland book that you sort of nod along with because it's not bold enough to say anything people might disagree with.

The biggest, most important thing he asks is “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”, as a way of discerning who has contrarian ideas that may actually be meaningful.  An interesting question.

One of the principle contrarian ideas in the book is that good businesses are something of a monopoly.  Sure, they don't want to come out and say it and get busted, but if you look at Microsoft, Google, and now Facebook... it's not like someone has come along and competed with them in what they do best.  New companies form around new things, and that generally happens only once per thing.

A less controversial point of view that's been promoted in other books like Crossing the Chasm, Thiel recommends starting out by dominating a niche.  Don't aim for "1% of a billion people", because that's going to have too much competition, be too hard to reach, and generally not be a good way to get started for a startup.

Every startup is small at the start. Every monopoly dominates a large share of its market. Therefore, every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small. The reason is simple: it’s easier to dominate a small market than a large one. If you think your initial market might be too big, it almost certainly is
The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors. Any big market is a bad choice, and a big market already served by competing companies is even worse.
 This is what he really means by "zero to one".  Incremental evolution of a product is not his idea of what really changes the world.  What really changes things are creating something where previously there was nothing.

There were also a number of things I wish I could ask about in more detail, because they seem partially right, but also dubious in other ways.

He talks about how there used to be more... "central planning", for lack of a better term, in the United States.  Big projects like dams, interstate freeways, and going to the moon, that don't seem possible these days.  I agree with him on things like the Apollo program; I wish we did more of that.  On the other hand, some of the big planned projects have had pretty serious unintended consequences.  Dams in the Pacific Northwest have had serious impacts on salmon populations, just as one example.  Even in terms of government projects, the internet, which was not nearly as well funded or visible as the space program, has probably had far more of an impact on our daily lives.  And I don't think anyone could have planned that out at the time.  Still, I do agree that it's kind of sad not to see more big ambitious projects.

About company founders:
Founders should share a prehistory before they start a company together—otherwise they’re just rolling dice.
I wrote about this same topic here:

Thiel comes out against remote work:
Even working remotely should be avoided, because misalignment can creep in whenever colleagues aren’t together full-time, in the same place, every day.
Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek
Say what?!  I don't really get why either one fits into 20th century economic schemes.

He talks about globalization, which might have some negatives for, say, factory workers, versus automation with computers, which he makes out in a very positive light:
Americans fear technology in the near future because they see it as a replay of the globalization of the near past. But the situations are very different: people compete for jobs and for resources; computers compete for neither.
Clearly, computers don't compete for jobs or resources, but the people running them sure do!

And in the middle of the book, he succinctly lays out his principles for what makes for a good company:

  1. The Engineering Question Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. The Timing Question Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. The Monopoly Question Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. The Durability Question Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
  7. The Secret Question Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
Which seem like good questions for creating world-changing companies.

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 co√∂peration 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.