Sunday, January 1, 2017

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man

First a hero in dime novels, and subsequently reviled as a killer of Native Americans, this book tries to look beyond both and describe Kit Carson as he actually was; a product of his time.

Going back in time, his family is described as Scots-Irish, a people used to rough justice carried out in person, and often retributive in nature, rather than carried out by the authorities.

Life on the frontier, where Carson grew up as his family migrated west, was similar.  The law was a somewhat distant concept.

This is a central theme of the book - how many of Carson's actions should be viewed in the light of the times he lived in.  Some are brutal from a modern viewpoint, but perhaps he should not be judged so harshly, the author states.

I wish the book had dealt more with Carson's travels throughout the west, and given more of a sense of place to his journeys, as that was my own interest in reading it.  In any age without automobiles, Carson traveled through a vast area of the country in a time when relatively few people of European extraction had been there.

An interesting look, in any event, at a figure who grew to be 'larger than life' despite being fairly modest and unassuming.  The leader of the mapping expedition Carson joined, John Fremont, was far more of a self-promoter.

The author's task is not made easier by the lack of much in the way of a written record from Carson himself.

A solid effort, but I'm not sure I'd recommend the book.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier

Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier

"The Frontier", once described as those places with less than 2 people per square mile, lives on in a large swath of the western United States.

This book follows the author as he travels to meet the inhabitants of the numerous counties in the western US that meet this definition.

Having spent most of the past 15 years in Europe, there's something I find fascinating about these places.  Indeed, most of the south-eastern quarter of my home state of Oregon is extremely sparsely populated, and earns a few mentions in the book.

The book talks about how the west was, and how it is now, and how it's changed, and how it may continue to change.

Most importantly, the author introduces us to a number of people who live in this part of the world, and gives us an idea of what makes them tick, who they are, and what they're doing "out there".

The book is nearly 20 years old at this point, but interestingly, many of the counties in question have continued to decline in population.

Recommended reading if you're curious about the kinds of places where the "road less traveled" leads.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Gold and Cattle Country

Reading "Gold and Cattle Country" is like sitting down and listening to a lifetime of tales about how things were in the real "old west".  And what a lifetime it was!

Herman Oliver's father came to the US from the Azores as a stowaway, and ended up settling in Oregon's Grant County.  Herman Oliver was born in John Day Oregon in 1885, when horses were the main means of transportation, and died in 1970, after a man had walked on the moon for the first time.  He was a successful cattle rancher and banker, and later became involved in local and Oregon politics as a member of various committees.

The sense of listening to an "old timer's" stories is strong, as the book rambles a bit at times, but in a pleasant way.

The author dedicates some space to evidencing the differences between the real west he lived in, and "the west" of movies and TV, like most of eastern Oregon. Nonetheless, the book carries a sense of "west" that is not present in the mossy green valleys and slate gray skies of western Oregon; a west of ranches and gold mines and of raw, remote country.

This is reflected in the names, too:
Western Oregon, perhaps due to the mild and friendly climate that attracted home loving people, abounds in gentle names such as Amity, Glad Tidings, Freedom, Forest Grove, Goshen, Fernhill, Fairview, Enchanted Prairie, and the like.
Indeed, Western Oregon was mostly settled by people looking to farm, build churches and schools and communities, and otherwise create a peaceful, and somewhat dull existence compared to the "gold and cattle country" of eastern Oregon.  While it's hard to disagree with the motives of the former, it does not make for much in the way of stories.

At times the book rambles a bit too much, and goes into more detail than many might find interesting about actually running a cattle ranch, but those parts are brief and bearable.

A few anecdotes that jumped out:

Sheep had a reputation for being driven through areas and laying waste to the graze. An Irish sheepherder is allowed to graze his sheep in some wheat that otherwise would have gone to waste:
I said to the herder, "Pat, did you ever have your sheep in feed as good as this?" He answered, "Ounly in the moonlight."  A whole story of an era is wrapped up there.
Interestingly, the wild horses of Oregon were in high demand when they were still used by various military forces:
The U.S. cavalry and light artillery looked to Oregon for their choicest mounts. In the Boer War, the British bought many thousands of horses, and in the first World War, British, French and American officers could be seen inspecting horses at every eastern Oregon shipping station.
Some border on the "not very politically correct", but I guess that goes with the times:
Once, while judging the riding events at the Pendleton Roundup, I was sitting on my horse waiting for the next event, while the Indian women, in their finery, happened to be lined up in front of me. They were back to me and another judge was appraising them and their costumes for the title of "Indian Queen". An old Indian saw me, noticed the judge sign, hurried up and told me confidentially but emphatically, "You no judge squaw's behind! You judge 'em in front." 
The book is full of stories like these, and they give a real sense of what life was like, and how much things changed over the years.

Lastly, this quote struck me as something that makes as much sense now as it did then:

If asked for a single sentence of advice to anyone starting a ranch or any other business, I'd say, "Be constructive." Time spent in fighting neighbors, fighting the business people, fighting other organizations, is wasted. We improved the meadow, improved the breed, made our association stronger, built harmonious relations, made friends everywhere. The policy has made our lives smoother and has made it fun to live.

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.