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.

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 clich√©s 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:


Friday, October 31, 2014

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880 - 1964

A lengthly book that sometimes delves into minutiae more than I would have cared for, it was still a worthy portrait of an individual who played an important role in 20th century history.

The book traces MacCarthur's family's origins, his upbringing and early career, which were all distinguished in their own ways, and then traces his role the war in the Pacific, the occupation of Japan, and his final act as a general, in the Korean war.  The general outline is available on Wikipedia, but here are some details that I found interesting:

  •  His mother was quite a meddler.  The picture of MacArthur in most books is of a strong, proud general.  It turns out that his mother, through much of his earlier career, regularly sent letters to various politicians and military higher-ups requesting his promotion.
  • The liberal treatment of Japan and its reconstruction owe much to him.  It can't have been easy to turn a page so quickly on the more than 100,000 US casualties in the Pacific theater alone.  Yet the desire to inflict a punitive settlement on Japan as set aside, and the country rebuilt as a liberal democracy.
  • Some Japanese forces were absolutely appalling in their behavior:
    Nearly 100,000 Filipinos were murdered by the Japanese. Hospitals were set afire after their patients had been strapped to their beds. The corpses of males were mutilated, females of all ages were raped before they were slain, and babies’ eyeballs were gouged out and smeared on walls like jelly
MacArthur had seen enough of war to abhor it... yet it was also his calling.

Even more striking, we find in one journalist’s observations, set down after a meeting with MacArthur, that “the General believes the press, right now, ought to quit making heroes of generals and admirals, as the first step in doing its job. The press of the world, too, ought to quit glorifying war in general. He feels that the business of making heroes of generals and admirals and glorifying war has a lot to do with influencing public opinion to accept war.”
And in 1957, to the delight of liberal pacifists like Roger Baldwin, he lashed out at large Pentagon budgets. “Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear—kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor—with the cry of grave national emergency,” he said. “Always there has been some terrible evil… to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.”

This, however, was after he "went off the rails" in his ideas for where to take the Korean conflict: some of his ideas involved the use of nuclear weapons or dropping "dirty" weapons on China, ideas his political masters would have none of.

He also apparently had high political ambitions of his own, but they never bore fruit.  I hadn't realized that he'd been considered a candidate for the presidency in several elections.  Apparently he wasn't very good at playing the political game.

The book ends with his death and funeral with little mention of his family, which I found unfortunate.

I'm not sure I'd recommend the book unless you read quickly and find the subject matter interesting, due to the length, and abundance of details in certain portions.  I found it interesting though.

He was certainly a gifted orator; this passage from the end of the book stands out:

“The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint; they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory, I always come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes in my ears—Duty, Honor, Country. Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps; and the Corps; and the Corps. I bid you farewell.”

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival

The global business ambitions of John Jacob Astor collide with the reality of one of the corners of the earth farthest from European civilization.

Launched in 1810, the idea was to create the seed of a colony on the west coast of North American - which belonged to no country in that day and age - to take advantage of the fur trade, and, perhaps, to found a new country or further the reach of the nascent United States.  

The expedition was not the success Astor had envisioned, and it would be nearly another 30 years before the Oregon Trail came to see larger numbers of emigrants headed for the Oregon territory.

The book was especially interesting for me, having been born and raised in western Oregon.  As something of a failure, the expedition doesn't get mentioned nearly as much as the Lewis and Clark expedition, or the Oregon Trail of later years.  But it's a fascinating bit of Oregon history.  Part of what did not work out for the expedition was the horrible, gray, damp weather that dominates the northern Oregon coast during winter.

Indeed, the Spanish, who were already in California, apparently were not much interested in the area to the north:
Spaniards first had sailed northward from their colonies in Mexico as far as today’s Oregon in the 1600s. But the cool, wet, rugged Northwest Coast inhabited by Indian tribes living in wooden longhouses and traveling in large cedar canoes didn’t compel them like the benign climates and monumental, gold-encrusted civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas far to the south.
The expedition was a two-pronged approach, with a boat going around Cape Horn and an overland expedition.  It took the overland expedition more than a year to finally reach Astoria, after much wandering.  As was often the case with the earliest white explorers, they very likely would have all perished had it not been for the kindness and hospitality of local Indians at various points on their route.

Without spoiling the story, there was also a fair amount of conflict with other Indian groups.

When both groups had finally arrived at their destination, and settled in, their existence was a bleak one:
Then imagine the rude shock of arrival in the coastal winter or early spring: It’s cold, it’s raining—as it is nearly two hundred days a year at the mouth of the Columbia; the infinite gray coastline stretches away, backed by the thick, dark rain forest—soggy, choked with rotting cedar logs, prehistoric sword ferns, and the dark columns of towering fir and spruce whose outstretched limbs are draped with lichen in giant, ghostly cobwebs. This was a far cry from the euphoric expanses and brilliant starry skies of the high plains, or even the snowy sparkle of the Rockies.
...set the mood of life on the Northwest Coast—the anxious, paranoid, exposed life in the dripping rain forest, along the swashing tidal rivers and surf-pounded headlands. This was not a warm, friendly place. In this dank, dark setting, fringed by violent death, personalities like McDougall spied malevolence lurking behind every tree.
As a now former resident of western Oregon, I think these descriptions do the place justice: if you like the sun and aren't a fan of damp weather, it's not a good place to be!

What put the nail in the coffin of the attempted settlement was the war of 1812 and the arrival of a British/Canadian group who (peacefully) took control of the fort and oversaw it for the next 30 some odd years, when the US/Canadian border was settled at its present location.

A few of the French-Canadian members of the expedition, including Marie Dorion, settled in the upper Willamette valley, becoming some of the first non-natives in the area.

An interesting footnote is that ships going around the horn would, rather than crawl up the coast, go to Hawaii and then double back.  The seagoing expedition took on some Hawaiians as crewmen on their way to Oregon.  One can only imagine the shock of going from a tropical paradise to the cold rain of the Pacific Northwest.

I found the book to be a very interesting read and would recommend it, especially if you have any connections to the places involved.