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:

http://wpcurve.com/the-7-day-startup-resources/



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
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.
and
...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.


Return of the Outlaw & West of Vermillion

Return of the Outlaw and West of Vermillion

I like to read a western from time to time, to relax and think about a world about as far from technology as possible. C.M. Curtis has written a fine pair of westerns, which are disappointingly hard to find these days.

The good guys are good, the bad guys bad, and there is not a lot of gray in between.  The plots are long and woven around multiple characters, which keeps the books interesting.   Both are set in indeterminate places, with Return of the Outlaw somewhere hot and dry with many Mexican inhabitants, and West of Vermillion seemingly somewhere in the Rockies.

Of the two, I think I prefer West of Vermillion in that it's a bit more complex. Return of the Outlaw is a story of bad guys, and the good guy "who they done wrong" who reclaims what is rightfully his.

If you don't care for westerns, I wouldn't bother, but if you do, these are worth your while.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

http://www.amazon.com/Made-Stick-Ideas-Survive-Others/dp/0739341340?tag=dedasys-20

This book had been on my wish list for a while, but I never quite got around to buying it.  On the recommendation of Rob Walling, I finally got around to reading it, and I wish I had done so earlier: it's got lots of great advice on how to more effectively communicate an idea in a way that people will remember it.

The book revolves around a checklist for really sticky ideas: "SUCCESS"


  • Simplicity is about boiling your idea down to the core element.  The authors don't claim this is easy, but it is necessary in order to effectively get something across.
  • Unexpectedness gets your attention and makes you sit up and take notice.
  • Concrete: "sticks to your mind like crazy glue" provides you with something tangible, if not real, that you can picture.  "Improves memory retention 28%" is, on the other hand, very abstract.
  • Credibility is how we get people to believe our ideas, perhaps with an authority figure, or with details that make it more real.
  • Emotions are really important for convincing people - even those of us who want to believe we make rational, logical decisions
  • Stories are much easier to recall and pass along than a series of abstract facts.  Storytelling has been part of the human experience for thousands of years.  Going over a story in your mind also helps someone prepare to act.
That's the really brief version anyway, but each chapter is fairly rich in details and suggestions about the different ways each of these factors comes into play.  This book definitely passes the "business book test" in that way - you'd actually lose out on quite a bit by reading a summary rather than the full book.  Here area few quotes:
This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.
This point is visited several times, and it's an important one: once you know a lot about something, it's had to remember what it was like to not know all about it.  This can make it very difficult to communicate well with people who don't have all the background knowledge in their heads that you do:
One of the worst things about knowing a lot, or having access to a lot of information, is that we’re tempted to share it all.
I know I'm guilty of that - trying to shotgun blast people with a huge spray of information.  It's too much though, and people will forget all of it.  If on the other hand, you can craft a simple, memorable message that gets to the heart of what you are trying to pass on, it's much more likely to stay with people.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Roadside MBA: Back Road Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives and Small Business Owners

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00FPQCYYY/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title?tag=dedasys-20

Business books about Big Companies and how they operate are next to useless for many of us.   That's what I liked about this book - it's about small companies doing a variety of things and the lessons that can be drawn from them.

The selection of companies, indeed, was great.  Too often business books focus on large corporations that, realistically, none of us will ever come close to running.  Small companies doing their own thing, though?  That is something many of us can aspire to.

"Mazzeo's law" was introduced early in the book, and I immediately liked the thinking behind it: most things don't have easy, clear-cut answers.
Mazzeo’s Law The answer to every strategic question is “It depends.” Corollary 1 The trick is knowing what it depends on. Corollary 2 If the answer to a question isn’t “It depends,” then it’s not a strategic question.
At times the "chatter" about the economist authors and their own lives is a bit more than I would want - it could have been edited down a lot.  Another thing that might have made the book better, although it would have been harder to accomplish, is to include a few case stories about failed businesses, and why they went under.

In any event, there are a lot of interesting lessons to be had throughout the book, and a summary wouldn't do them justice.  Not all the concepts discussed are applicable to every small company, but there's a nice variety.  Here is the table of contents, to give you an idea of the subjects covered:

  • Chapter 1: Scaling a Business
  • Chapter 2: Establishing Barriers to Entry 
  • Chapter 3: Product Differentiation 
  • Chapter 4: Setting Prices 
  • Chapter 5: Managing Your Brand 
  • Chapter 6: Negotiating Effectively 
  • Chapter 7: Hiring 
  • Chapter 8: Incentives for Employees 
  • Chapter 9: Delegation 
  • Chapter 10: Battling the Big Boys
Whatever kind of business you are in, much of the material will, if nothing else, stimulate some thoughts about how these ideas apply to it.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BATINVS/?tag=dedasys-20

Freakonomics was the book that kicked off a lot of "pop economics" books by looking at a variety of subjects in a way that was new to many people, taking on various subjects such as the declining crime rate and its relation to abortion, sumo wrestling match fixing and how much drug dealers earn.

Think Like a Freak is the book that goes beyond the numbers and anecdotes from the authors' other books, and talks about how to view problems in a similar way, from another point of view.

Some of their suggestions:


  • Try and put aside your feelings when thinking about things.  If you're already sure that you possess The Right Answer, then you're not likely to think about the problem very clearly.
  • Sometimes it's better to admit you don't know:
The next time you run into a question that you can only pretend to answer, go ahead and say “I don’t know”—and then follow up, certainly, with “but maybe I can find out.” And work as hard as you can to do that. You may be surprised by how receptive people are to your confession, especially when you come through with the real answer a day or a week later
  • Children often think of things with no preconceived notions.  This is often a helpful frame of mind for considering problems.
  • Incentives matter.  This is something pretty much any economist will tell you.
  • Revealed preferences can tell you a lot... if you can find a way to get people to reveal them.  One of the stories here is about Van Halen and brown M&M's: http://www.snopes.com/music/artists/vanhalen.asp
  • Being persuasive is important to accomplish things - it's not enough to be right.  You also have to convince other people that you're right:

    "Sure, it’s important to acknowledge the flaws in your argument and keep the insults to yourself, but if you really want to persuade someone who doesn’t wish to be persuaded, you should tell him a story"
  • Sometimes, it's best to quit rather than doggedly pursue something that's not going anywhere.  This revolves around the sunk cost fallacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunk_costs#Loss_aversion_and_the_sunk_cost_fallacy - although naturally it's not easy to tell when you should be persistent and when giving up is the best idea.
Some of the quotes I appreciated in the book:

When asked to name the attributes of someone who is particularly bad at predicting, Tetlock needed just one word. “Dogmatism,” he says. That is, an unshakable belief they know something to be true even when they don’t. Tetlock and other scholars who have tracked prominent pundits find that they tend to be “massively overconfident,” in Tetlock’s words, even when their predictions prove stone-cold wrong. That is a lethal combination—cocky plus wrong—especially when a more prudent option exists: simply admit that the future is far less knowable than you think.
This makes a lot of sense to me.  I think the less we are in the business of trying to predict things, the better off we are.  The future is complicated, and there are so many ways things can leap off the track you imagined they were on.

On  incentives:

Why do some incentives, even those created by smart and well-intentioned people, backfire so badly? We can think of at least three reasons: 1. No individual or government will ever be as smart as all the people out there scheming to beat an incentive plan. 2. It’s easy to envision how you’d change the behavior of people who think just like you do, but the people whose behavior you’re trying to change often don’t think like you—and, therefore, don’t respond as you might expect. 3. There is a tendency to assume that the way people behave today is how they’ll always behave. But the very nature of an incentive suggests that when a rule changes, behavior does too—although not necessarily, as we’ve seen, in the expected direction.

and

  1. Figure out what people really care about, not what they say they care about.
  2. Incentivize them on the dimensions that are valuable to them but cheap for you to provide. 
  3. Pay attention to how people respond; if their response surprises or frustrates you, learn from it and try something different.
  4. Whenever possible, create incentives that switch the frame from adversarial to cooperative.
  5. Never, ever think that people will do something just because it is the “right” thing to do.
  6. Know that some people will do everything they can to game the system, finding ways to win that you never could have imagined. If only to keep yourself sane, try to applaud their ingenuity rather than curse their greed.
I'm a fan of economic thinking, so I found the book to be a good read, especially since it doesn't really deal with economics as such, but as part of a way of thinking about many things, some of which might not see the domain of economics.



Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run-or Ruin-an Economy

http://www.amazon.com/Undercover-Economist-Strikes-Back-Ruin-ebook/dp/B00DMCV624/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid=&tag=dedasys-20

I enjoy Tim Harford's writing, especially his first book, "The Under Cover Economist" but was a bit reticent to get this one. Macroeconomics seems like something that we don't really have a good handle on yet, in many ways, a fact that is indeed acknowledged in the book, and it tends to be a bit more abstract than microeconomics.  However, I needn't have worried: the pleasant writing style makes the book a quick and pleasant read, and touches on a number of topics that are often encountered when reading about the economy and politics.  In this sense, the book is a pretty good tour of important topics in macroeconomics.  Having read this and that over the years, many the topics were not really new to me, but it was nice to see them covered in a fairly direct, neutral way rather than simply absorbing them in context.

While fairly neutral in terms of mainstream economics, the author is certainly opinionated:

The world is full of people who will tell you that there is. Tie your currency to gold! Always balance your budget! Protect manufacturing! Eliminate red tape! That kind of thing. You can safely ignore these people. Anyone who insists that running a modern economy is a matter of plain common sense frankly doesn’t understand much about running a modern economy.
This is probably the sort of opinion lost on the people who most ought to take it to heart, though.

"We don't have all the answers" is something that becomes quite clear in the book, but we do our best to keep improving on what we do know, and to use that effectively with regards to the economy.  You can't run experiments on an economy, except by accident, and there are always many confounding factors in play at one time, making it difficult to understand what is affecting what.  This is a difficulty microeconomics faces, but it's exacerbated by the scale that is the scope of macroeconomists.

Some topics touched upon include inflation, employment, central banks, labor markets, and inequality.  There is also a lengthy section of the book dedicated to defending the use of GDP to measure an economy, in that alternatives are mostly worse, and pushed as part of a political agenda.  Also, broadly, people who have more money are happier:
Justin Wolfers, told me that the relationship between life satisfaction and income is “one of the highest correlations you’ll ever see in a cross-country data set in the social sciences, ever.”
As a resident of Italy, with a first-hand view of the stagnant economy, the brief comment on the employment model here seems pretty obvious.... outside Italy at least:
What’s pretty clear is what doesn’t work: the Mediterranean model of Spain, Italy and Greece provides little help to young people and extravagant protection to people with permanent contracts.
The notion that failure is important for growth is also touched on:
But corporate failure isn’t the cause of economic trouble—it’s the process by which badly managed companies are replaced by more productive competitors.
This is something that often involves very difficult changes for those involved, but ultimately leads to a healthier, more productive economy.  The amount of money that Italy has sunk into Alitalia comes to mind.

The "but GDP growth can't continue forever!" argument is also faced:
I fully agree with the environmentalists who worry that we cannot continue consuming more and more water, spewing out more and more carbon dioxide and burning more and more coal. The problem comes if we then leap to the conclusion that the economy itself cannot keep growing. It doesn’t follow.

...

A lot of what’s going on with GDP growth is not that more materials are being used, but rather that much the same materials become more valuable as they are used in a better-designed object

...

The economy has been dematerializing: more and more of what we consume in rich countries requires fewer resources because of more efficient technology (LEDs instead of incandescent bulbs; laptops instead of mainframe computers), or because the value is mostly in the esthetic design (haute couture, haute cuisine), or even because—like the e-book you may be reading or the audiobook you downloaded—the product is digital and has almost no physical form at all
 If you're already familiar with macroeconomics, this book will be too basic, but for anyone else not familiar with the subject, I would happily recommend it.  The conversational style of the book, and the author's able writing make a good introduction to what could be a dry and boring subject in the wrong hands.

Monday, April 14, 2014

For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families

http://www.amazon.com/Better-Work-Survival-Entrepreneurs-Families-ebook/dp/B007HAZUPQ/?tag=dedasys-20

Rob Walling's wife, Sherry, gave a talk at MicroConf Europe last year, about various personal and family related aspects of business and entrepreneurship.  In some ways, that was the talk that stuck with me the most from the conference: I can always read technical advice on the internet about various aspects of running a business, but the personal aspect of a bootstrapped business - or any business, really, is extremely important, and the window into the Wallings' lives as he has grown his businesses was very interesting.  From the outside, it's pretty easy to see that he's been successful, but she talked about some problems they've had along the way. I think that resonated with many of us in the audience who have families.

I finally got around to reading this book, which is one she highly recommended.   I too would pass on the recommendation, as the book had many interesting points of view.  The author, the wife of a successful entrepreneur, not only includes some of her own anecdotes, but has included a wide array of stories and people from all kinds of businesses.  This is important, as there are no two stories exactly alike, so what works for some does not work for others, and it's important to be cognizant of the differences.  I also appreciate about the book that there are not always nice, neat answers even in good, happy relationships.

Here are a few quotes that I highlighted:

There may be no faster route to upsetting your spouse than behaving as though your time is more valuable than his—even if from a revenue standpoint that happens to be true
Extremely important to remember!  You can't always think in monetary terms, because money is a good way to value things in a market economy, it doesn't always capture what something is worth.
By refusing to spend the family’s money on the company, the spouse telegraphs her belief that the entrepreneur is pursuing a lost cause—and, by extension, that she has no faith in him.
This is the other side of the above comment.  To me this issue of trust and faith is pretty important: I'm not a born entrepreneur, so I am not entirely confident in my own abilities.  I haven't spent our money on my business project, but I do invest time.  I don't know how it'll turn out, and have some of my own doubts.  When the person you love most voices strong doubts, that can really cut you down.

Home-based businesses are a big tease. They dangle the entrepreneur before his loving family (Dad’s home!) and then immediately snatch him away (Dad’s locked his door!).
I've given up on getting much work done at home while my children are small.  it's just too difficult to push them away.  It's important to have a space where you can just concentrate, without seeing the disappointment on their faces when daddy says "no".

I feel strongly that experiences—the kind that forge memories or expand horizons or provide fleeting epiphanies—should not be postponed, no matter how demanding the company. ... But when families discuss what to sacrifice due to limitations on time and/or money, I think vacations should be off the table.
As I age, I've come to think about things in terms of what I'll remember in 10 years.  It won't be the small things, but the great experiences that we've had together as a family.

There are lots of discussion points, things to talk about and consider together.

In conclusion - for me a successful business would represent economic freedom for myself and my family, but it's a journey we share, and not one I'm willing or able to make alone.  Out of lots of business books with bits of trite advice, this one really stands out in that it discusses what really matters most.




Friday, February 14, 2014

East of the Cascades

http://www.amazon.com/East-Cascades-Phil-F-Brogan/dp/B0007EBFTY/?tag=dedasys-20

The part of Oregon I grew up in, the southern end of the Willamette valley, is kind of a rainy, gray, dreary place, like most of western Oregon.  The people that settled the area were the sort of people who wanted to plant crops, raise their children, build schools and churches, and otherwise lead happy but boring lives.  This is not "the West" that you see in movies or in books.

That west starts east of the Cascades in Oregon, in the high, dry country.  I wouldn't want to live there, but when I'm back in Oregon I always love to visit the high desert.  The sense of vast, lonely openness is something that is all but absent in the bits of Europe that I have seen.

Written in 1964, this book talks about the history of central Oregon - focusing on the area around Bend and Prineville, an area that was more remote and more "Western" than the rainy part of the state on the other side of the mountains.  Indeed, the more fertile farmland in the Willamette Valley was settled first, and only later did settlers head back east, or south from The Dalles.

The book talks about the history of the area, starting with the earliest people of European descent in the area, range wars, Native Americans ("Indians", in the book, being from 1964), and lots of odd bits and pieces of history.

One of the most interesting anecdotes is about a group called The Vigilantes, who dispensed "justice" in Prineville, Oregon in the 1880ies.  Only it turned out that their version of justice was not very "fair and balanced", and as the area was settled, the population wanted real law enforcement, rather than masked riders and mysterious deaths.  A group called the "Moonshiners" formed, and eventually, 75 strong, rode through the town and called out the Vigilantes who were in a local saloon.  The latter wisely stayed put inside. Realizing their days of power were over, and, humiliated, they gave up and never acted again.  No gunplay, but a fascinating story nonetheless.  You can read more about this showdown here: http://www.offbeatoregon.com/1212a-prineville-vigilantes-defeated-without-a-shot.html

It's interesting to read about the rise and fall of various places.  At one point, Shaniko, as a railroad terminus, was one of the more important towns in the region.  Antelope was also on the road north to The Dalles, but is now nearly a ghost town, as Highway 97 bypasses it to the east.  Well after this book was written, Antelope was briefly in the news again in the 1980ies when the Rashneeshees made their home on a large ranch nearby, but that story isn't covered in the book (you can find links to it from this page on Antelope: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antelope,_Oregon ).  Bend, now the largest town in the region, is actually relatively recent compared to Prineville and some of the other early sites.  Bend was incorporated as a city only in 1904.

In any event, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Oregon history.  Others might not find that it holds their interest.

For further reading, here's the wikipedia page on the author: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Brogan

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

http://www.amazon.com/Masters-Doom-Created-Transformed-Culture-ebook/dp/B000FBFNL0/tag=dedasys-20

Did you own a computer in the 1990ies?  Do you remember Doom and Quake?  I didn't play them that much, but they were very, very cool, especially for those days, when computers didn't have nearly the power that today's mobile phones do.

This book is the story of John Romero and John Carmack, the two main guys behind id software's hit games from the early 90ies.  Amongst many interesting aspects of the story, one that stands out is just how big a revolution computers have been.  Here were these two guys, with no money, no connections, not very supportive families, who, mostly through their own skills and knowledge made millions of dollars, and a name for themselves, all in their 20ies.

The author does a good job of telling the story, and keeping things interesting, talking about many of the other people involved along the way.  Towards the end, as things start to fall apart, some of the infighting and rivalries get a bit confusing, but all told, the book held my interest all the way through.

Some various quotes and bits that stood out:

John Carmack had a cat, Mitsi, that he was attached to, but when the cat peed on his new leather couch, he got rid of the cat by dropping it off at the animal shelter, where it was presumably put down.  He was extremely dedicated to coding and pretty much anything that disturbed him or got in his way was not something he looked kindly on.  Initially, his main motivation for doing the company was so that he had the freedom to work 100% on his own games, and have "enough pizza and diet coke to live on".

Senator Joe Lieberman comes across as something of a demagogue, railing against "immoral", violent video games.

Carmack on learning:
"My basic skills built up during school on apple II computers, but lack of resources limited how far and fast I could go. The situation is so much better for programmers today—a cheap used PC, a linux CD, and an internet account, and you have all the tools and resources necessary to work your way to any level of programming skill you want to shoot for."  

That describes my own experience pretty much exactly!  Once I got Linux and was on the internet, I just kept soaking stuff up and haven't stopped since.  I'm incredibly lucky to have had that available.

Carmack again:
Carmack disdained talk of highfalutin things like legacies but when pressed would allow at least one thought on his own. “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” he said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”
Indeed, the company was bootstrapped, and the book never mentions them taking any investment.

All in all, a fun read that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Goliath Stone

http://www.amazon.com/The-Goliath-Stone-Larry-Niven-ebook/dp/B00C74OY7M/ref=pd_ybh_6?tag=dedasys-20

Larry Niven has written a lot of great science fiction books over the years, and I would highly recommend you read those rather than this book.

There isn't much of a plot in that the protagonists just bounce from success to success.  The whole thing is dripping with political snipes at people who disagree with the author on various issues.  And it's full of dialogue with lots of "in" jokes for people who follow a lot of sci-fi.  One of these alone might have been tolerable, especially if mixed with a great story, but that's not really there.

The science fiction premise was kind of interesting, but were the sentient nanobots given their choice in the matter, I'm sure they too would have fled from this book towards something better.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

After Tamerlane

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B003Z9L4O4/?tag=dedasys-20

At nearly 600 pages, this is not a light read.  Spanning the past 600 years, and the entire globe, it also covers a lot of space and history.  If you don't find history interesting, this is most certainly not the book for you. On the other hand, if you think that history is fascinating, this book contains a great deal of it: it covers the rise and fall of empires around the world since the fall of Tamerlane.  That's a long time, and the book is not restricted to Europe; indeed one of the things I liked most about it is the coverage of Africa and especially Asia.

It breaks down and discusses, in detail, a lot of what happened in India, Iran, and what was the Ottoman Empire over the years, as well as China and Japan, and how all of them interacted, in turn with the European nations.  It turns out that the "Europe dominates the world" story is pretty simplistic and requires a lot more detail and nuance to give a good account of what happened where, and when.

While not a page-turner, it's written fairly well, and I found it easy to make progress.  As above, I greatly enjoyed some of the coverage of the world outside of Europe.  I've got a reasonably decent grasp of European history, but am well aware that there are critical parts of the "old world" like China and India that I know precious little about, and this book helps fill in some of those gaps.

As the book concludes:
But if there is one continuity that we should be able to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia’s resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules. In that sense, we still live in Tamerlane’s shadow – or, perhaps more precisely, in the shadow of his failure.