Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Warrior's Wings & Odyssey One

I read a lot of informative, interesting non-fiction, but sometimes I need to relax a bit, and depending on the mood I'm in, Science Fiction or Westerns are my preferred genres.  Some of my favorite SciFi authors include Neal Stephenson, Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven; they write interesting stuff as well as good stories.  Sometimes, though, it's fun to read a good old "space opera" with "good guys" vs evil aliens.  These books fall firmly into that category.  Tough, strong men and women go head to head against malevolent aliens with sometimes superior technology...and come out ahead.

The first set of books is about a contested world where a foot soldier is dropped into a fight she was never expecting, and forms (in the first book) a guerilla squad to fight the aliens.

The second set is about the voyages of the Odyssey One, which makes humanity's first contact, on its maiden voyage, with both friendly and very, very unfriendly aliens.

I'm not sure either book contains any particularly novel ideas, but if you like science fiction with a military bent, they're fun reading.  They both include battles both in space and on the ground with futuristic weapons, although the former has more ground combat, and the latter more fighting in space.

In short, it's some good entertaining escapist reading.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Thinking Statistically

Odds are, if you have enjoyed the other books I've reviewed, you'll like this one too.  Sorry, kidding!  But I did enjoy this one, even though it's a bit on the brief side: the three chapters are about "selection bias", "endogenity" and "Bayes".  All are well written in terms that someone like me, without a lot of math, can easily understand, without appearing to be too dumbed down.  I particularly appreciated the chapter on Bayes, because while the other ideas are fairly sensible, Bayes doesn't seem 100% obvious at first glance, so a thorough explanation of the basic idea is very welcome.  It's priced ok for the short lengthy, but I would have gladly paid more for a longer book with more topics centered around the idea of "how can this be applied in real life?".

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance

Accounting is not the first thing most of us think of when envisioning Renaissance Italy.  Nor the second, third, fourth or... at all, probably.  And yet, amongst so many other things, that era gave birth to one of the fundamentals of modern business.  As this book points out, mathematics were still mixed up with astrology, chemistry with alchemy, and were to go through numerous improvements over the years.  And yet, at its heart, double entry accounting is still with us, and still extremely useful, in a form that is not terribly different from that documented by Luca Pacioli in 1494, just two years after Europeans discovered the Americas.

Far from being a boring individual, Pacioli was born in Tuscany, and like many in that time and age, migrated over time between city states.  At one point, he even roomed (and... perhaps more) with Leonardo da Vinci.

The book documents his life, and the murky early history of double entry accounting. Pacioli did not
"invent" accounting, but documented it in detail at a time when the printing press was becoming available, thus being at the right place and right time to have his work spread far and wide:

By the time Pacioli returned in 1494, Venice had become the publishing capital of southern Europe, with more than 268 printing shops run mostly by experts from Germany and France. They came to Venice because of its favourable business conditions: its large labour force, low printing costs, stable liberal government run by merchants for merchants, readily available patronage, and its vigorous intellectual community which could provide the translators, proofreaders and scholarly advisors that a successful printing press required.
I originally came across this book via a review in The Economist:

And I concur with their assessment that it goes off the rails a bit towards the end, where the author launches into a criticism of the calculation of GDP.   Despite the fact that some of her points are well founded, it feels like a separate book from the more interesting historical portion, which comprises most of the otherwise fascinating book.