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 was perhaps even closer) 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.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Oregon Desert

Inhospitable, hot, dry, cold, and high, the Oregon desert country is vast, and very, very empty.  It's also not at all what people think of when they think of the verdant valleys and forests of Oregon.  It also happens to be one of my favorite parts of the state to explore when I'm back home, and my parents gave me this book as a gift for my birthday.

After a steady diet of Kindle books, a "real" book with roots in the land and in the past was a very welcome change.  One of the authors was actually born in 1898, and grew up before cars, before radio, before TV... back when the west really was still the west. Descriptions of his life in

The book jumps around a lot, it's not a novel, just a collection of stories, anecdotes and essays about various subjects related to life in the Oregon high desert.  Subjects include what a cattle drive was really like, doctors of note on the desert, conservation, animals of the desert, and places to visit.  One of the most interesting and beautiful places is actually on land that one of the authors, Reub Long, donated to the state of Oregon for a state park, Fort Rock:,+Oregon&hl=en&ll=43.370648,-121.064014&spn=0.029418,0.066047&sll=45.406504,11.891245&sspn=0.226334,0.528374&hnear=Fort+Rock,+Lake,+Oregon&t=p&z=15&layer=c&cbll=43.370654,-121.063381&panoid=3khIQMmdxT1iCGGV9Hd7fw&cbp=12,305.09,,0,-4.19

I suspect the book is of limited interest to most of my friends and those who know me via the internet, but if you like to read about things 'far from home', this certainly fits the bill.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick

What an amazing life!

From pre-war Warsaw to France to the United States, it would have made for an interesting tale, even if Benoît Mandelbrot hadn't gone on to do half of what he did.  Most famous for his work with fractals, he liked to be associated with "roughness" in general; such things as shorelines, mountains, and many other naturally occurring phenomenon.  Importantly, he also was one of the first to explicitly state that the world of finance is not governed by bell curves, where "outlier" events are extremely rare, but rather by a "fat tail" distribution where extreme events are more common than one would suspect.

Somehow, the first part of the book struck me more; as much as his scientific/mathematical accomplishments are what made him famous, some of the stories leading to and during World War II were amazing.  At a certain point, living in Vichy France, his family split up to improve their chances of survival, with him and his brother being on their own for over a year, while still trying to study.

After having recently read Vanished Kingdoms, the details about Lithuania, Poland and Russia were illustrated in a way that the linked book never really brought home at a personal level.  For instance, he talks about visiting a settlement one summer that is reachable only via several trains, and finally, along a muddy road with a horse drawn carriage.

It's interesting to see how many of his contributions came later in life; for someone in math or physics, that's rare.  Also, because he liked to drift from field to field, and not wishing to 'settle down' with one subject, he ended up at IBM doing research, rather than an academic institution.

The writing style is a bit clipped at times, but I like it; it's direct and to the point.

Those like myself who do not use a great deal of math in their lives will also be relieved that, with the exception of the formula for the Mandelbrot set, which is explained step by step, there are no formulas or math in the book.

All in all, I found the book inspiring on several levels, first his survival in extremely uncertain times, as well as his studied eclecticism.

Also, as luck would have it, I finished the book several days ago and am writing this review on what would have been his 88th birthday, on November 20th.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Information Wants To Be Shared

"Pirates!  Police state!  Thieves! Antiquated businesses!"

I read a lot of debate online regarding digital goods such as movies, music and books, as well as software, and there's often a lot of heat, such as the above, but little light in these discussions, where people often camp out at two extremes: the "anything goes" camp who see no possible reason for restrictions on copying, but tend to get a bit hand-wavy when the discussion turns to how to pay content creators.  The other side, who actually aren't very present in most discussions of these things on line, are people and institutions like movie studios or book publishers, who, in their confusion to catch up with a changing world, sometimes push for rather draconian measures to attempt to keep people from copying anything.

It's not as common to see serious, "grown up" analysis of the economic patterns at work, with consideration for both authors and consumers.  This book is just such a look at the world of digital goods, and how they'll be produced and consumed in the near future.

As the title states, the central idea is that information is more valuable if it can be, and is shared.  Even if all books were free, for instance, you couldn't possibly read them all, so it's valuable to have someone share their recommendations with you.

At various points in the book, the author suggests potential business models that might work to both share information goods, but also keep their producers in business, which has to be part of what is desirable as an outcome: if everything's free, but no one but the independently wealthy can afford to write, because there is no compensation for it, then society is the poorer for it.  Natural, many of his ideas are not tested, but I really appreciate the thoughtfulness behind many of them in terms of considering the effects for everyone, including producers, consumers and society at large.

The author is not just someone writing from an ivory tower about the economics of sharing, he cites writers like Cory Doctorow and Clay Shirky, as well as sites and concepts such as Reddit and Kickstarter, both of which are currently enjoying a great deal of popularity.

A genuine curiosity also permeates the writing.  There's a thesis to the book, but it's not a book where everything is explained by the one simple concept that the book introduces.  Where he's not sure or doesn't know, he doesn't hesitate to say so.

Being a fairly short book, I think it's an extremely worthwhile read for anyone who has anything to do with the production or consumption of information goods.

If you don't want to buy the book on Amazon, you can get it directly from with this discount code, for 99 cents: ADINFO1 !

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations

I was really curious when I bought this book - the title promises much, about kingdoms lost in the mists of time, and perhaps some interesting historical oddities.

There are places where it delivers, but it didn't quite live up to the book I thought it would be.  The first few were quite interesting, as they are countries that have long since been subsumed into others, but some of the later examples seemed a bit weak.  For instance, Savoy is listed as existing from 1033-1946.  Well, yes, they abdicated from Italy in 1946, but what was actually "Savoy" as a state was radically changed when they let the French speaking part loose and started concentrating on Italy.

This actually brings up something I missed from the book.  Granted, it would not have been easy in all cases, but I would have appreciated something more about what things might have been like for the inhabitants.  For instance, I'm positive that your average Giuseppe who lived in the Republic of Venice certainly considered that to be his country in a very real way that we would understand today.  How about someone from the French bit of Savoy though?  What did they think of their "country"?  How did they seem themselves in relation to it?  I know they're not easy questions to answer, but they seem as interesting as the sequence of ruler X was born on some date, and married so and so, whose children also inherited blah blah, and was an uncle of Y who went on to reign from some other date, and so on and so forth, which talk about the big picture happenings, but don't give a sense if there was any 'there' there, or if indeed, the countries were just collections of land owned by the guy who happened to be ruler at the time. 

If you consider the above, for instance, Savoy was long split into French and Italian speaking bits, so when they dumped the French bits and started working on becoming the Kingdom of Italy, was it really the same country?  Italy stopped being the Kingdom of Italy after the referendum, but it seems to be a blurry line, because Italy, despite cripling debts and Bunga Bunga parties and and whatnot, is still very much a going concern even if there is no longer a king.  I guess it seems arbitrary to me, as if the abdication of the king were more important than the living, breathing country.

In any event, aside from that, there are a lot of interesting details about various corners of Europe, so it was still a good read, just not quite all I had thought it might be.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Adweek Copywriting Handbook

At heart, this book is about transforming the written word into money by selling products.  In a larger sense, it's about how to write to convince, a technique that is useful to pretty much anyone.  If you never write to convince, you might at least be interested in how other people are trying to convince you with their writing.

I'm not that great a writer, so advice in how to improve is useful, and the author does a good job of conveying some useful principles.

One thing that's weak in the book is that the author made his money in the 70ies and 80ies, and while the book has had a retrofit for the web, it's clearly not what it was written for or about.  I think that most of the principles translate fairly well for the web, but not all of them, and it's worth reading it with a critical eye from that point of view.

This would be a great book to use for a course: I felt that reading straight through it without practising some of what's illustrated was probably less than ideal, so I hope to go back and reread bits and pieces and attempt to put them in practice with some of my blog posts / emails for LiberWriter.

I suspect that reading more on the subject wouldn't hurt at all.  Any suggestions?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mongoliad, Parts I & II

To be up front about it, I bought this because I'll buy pretty much anything with Neal Stephenson's name on it.

It is not, however, up to the levels of his other books.  It's good, and worthwhile as far as it goes, but to me it feels kind of ... flat.  It lacks something of a signature style, the stamp of one author, which is of course quite natural since it was a collaboration.  It's not bad, it's an entertaining read, but you can definitely tell that it's a "book by committee".  A very illustrious committee, certainly, but nonetheless, the book seems a bit "plain" compared to other things I've read by Stephenson: you probably couldn't pick him out as one of the authors from a sample of the book.

In terms of the subject material, it's about a band of warriors travelling to kill the Mongol Khan, and hopefully to stop their invasion of Europe.  So definitely more of a historical fiction book than science fiction.  Fine with me - I think Stephenson has actually done some of his best work as historical fiction.  However, his other books all seem to add that trace element of the unknown that somehow makes them seem quite nearly science fiction books.

The only other thing that bugs me a bit, and a reason to put off purchasing the books, is that part III won't be out until early 2013 some time, so you're liable to forget some of what already happened by the time the book is released, if you read the earlier portions now.   Perhaps it's only a sign of my aging, but it took me a bit to get back into Part II after a month between having first read Part I and getting the second one.  Remembering all of the characters and what they were up to took a few chapters.  I expect the same thing will happen with the final portion of the work.

Complaints aside, if you know and appreciate the authors in question, I'd recommend the book(s) - because it is fun and entertaining as long as your expectations are not too high.  Not as one of their greatest, but as a fun read nonetheless.

Friday, October 5, 2012

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

This wasn't the most complex of books, but it delivers what it promises, an account of the raid that got bin Laden.

Most of the book was about "Mark"'s life as a SEAL, which is interesting in terms of how far removed from "normal" it is.  It actually reminds me a bit of what I've read about professional bike racers in terms of being "the best of the best", and needing to train and act constantly to maintain that level.  Of course, the bike guys don't get shot at whilst doing their jobs (hopefully).

The professionalism of "Mark" and his team comes through in several ways, which was impressive.  I was expecting something a bit more "rah rah, go team", but while the sense of camaraderie is strong, when it comes down to doing their (very stressful) jobs, they are all business. 

You've got to wonder what these guys do when there are not two active wars to keep them busy. They've been trained to do something, and not doing it must be frustrating.

All in all, an interesting look at a world that's a polar opposite from mine.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Climbing the Charts: What Radio Airplay Tells Us about the Diffusion of Innovation

Interesting look at how songs spread in terms of radio play. The good thing about this book is that it is not a "dumbed down story book" "economics for the rest of us" kind of book. The bad thing is that he uses a lot of jargon, which can make for some dense reading. In some points, he remembers to explain the concepts in English, in others you have to follow along. The key point about radio at least is that song diffusion does not follow an S curve like it would from being slowly spread by "word of mouth" and then taking off. New songs from big artists generally follow an "all at once" kind of curve, meaning that there's likely one source for the all-of-a-sudden popularity; a source that the author fingers as music industry promotion, including, but not limited to "payola". There are also some good thoughts on the future of music. Here's one that also highlights the language utilized throughout: "Perhaps the strongest theoretical case for the importance of boundary-spanning in general, and distributor relations with surrogate consumers in particular, comes from Neuman's Future of the Mass Audience (1991) which notes that barriers to entry for production costs and distribution costs could be (and in retrospect have proven to be) ameliorated by technology, but audience attention is inherently scarce and so barriers to entry through promotion are an eternal issue" In other words, even though you can easily make music (or write books, or whatever) without financial support, because technology has made it cheaper, getting the public's attention is still difficult and this means there is still a role for publishers as promoters/gatekeepers. There is also some discussion of the difficulty songs that do not easily fit into easy categories have, which is probably not news to some of my favorite bands like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Fishbone.

Good Italy, Bad Italy

It's a pretty good analysis of what's wrong with Italy and how to fix it, sprinkled with some portraits of people doing well in modern Italy. The only problem with it is that, living in Italy, I knew most of it already, and generally agree with the proposed solutions as well. I think the book would be best for someone who is interested in Italy, but not intimately familiar with what's been going on here over the past 20 years. He does make some good points; for instance, that the rigid labor contracts are, yes, problematic in terms of making the economy more flexible, but made much more so by standardized national contracts for categories of worker, and a justice system that is slow, bloated and unweildy. In other words, you could offer more worker "protection" than in, say, the US if you also eliminated some of the other inefficiencies in the system and still do ok. All in all, it's a reasonably positive book: he also makes the point that part of the problem is people simply being too negative in Italy. If more people would stop moping about, get off their asses, and do something, it would tip the balance from 'bad Italy' to 'good Italy'.

Valdez is Coming

This one is a gritty western; a tale about revenge.  I like Leonard's style, it's different from the "good guys, bad guys" type of writing that you might find in, say, Louis L'Amour's books.

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

About the clash between the Ottoman empire and Europe for control of the "center of the world" - the Mediterranean sea, which was, until the discovery of the Americas, the place to be in terms of trade. 

Well written, and he adds a lot of detail that makes it more than just a collection of facts and dates. Venice gets mentioned a lot, and not always in the best light, although to me the fact that they were more interested in trading rather than fighting sounds mostly positive. Not for the faint of heart: there were some pretty gruesome things that both sides did to one another - I guess life was cheap and suffering abounded in those days. 

The New Geography of Jobs

A good read, although I wasn't really too surprised by most if it. Indeed, despite citing lots of research, I found myself basically nodding along with everything, including his policy recommendations. The key point of the book is that innovation industries tend to cluster, with strong agglomerations getting stronger over time, and weaker places continuing to get worse, rather than balancing out. This is part of why 'innovation hubs' like Silicon Valley are so very difficult to copy. Policy recommendations are not new to anyone who has been "paying attention": improve education in the US, make it easier for skilled workers to immigrate there, avoid industrial policy for the most part. As for places that are currently "losers" like Flint, Michigan, he says to really go all-in on a 'big push' to attract some kind of innovative cluster if you want to try and go that way, but otherwise doesn't really offer much advice other than the implicit "get the hell out of Dodge". Good read, but probably more interesting for those who don't often read similar books and blogs. Noteworthy to me at least also because the author is Italian.

Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander

What an interesting life... he saw naval action from the Mediterranean to Peru in the service of various countries! He was also very progressive politically, and something of a tinkerer/inventor. The first book of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturan books is lifted straight from Cochrane's first command. I've been reading a lot of naval history books lately for whatever reason. Probably time to move on to another subject!

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy

A good read, although I liked his WWII book about the early stages of the war in the Pacific a bit more, as it was a bit less "technical" - there's only so much you can read about mizzen masts and spars and whatnot... It's interesting how globalized the world already was back then: one of the reasons the US navy was brought into being was to defend US merchants in the Mediterranean from the "Barbary Pirates".

Later on in the year after having read the book, I managed to actually visit the USS Constitution in Boston.  I'm very glad I read all the back story, because the official tour was very, very brief compared to all the rich details contained within the book, especially regarding all the politics behind the decision whether to build a navy, how much of a navy to build, and so on.

Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942

I just finished reading this. Very interesting, as it ranges from the details of some of the protagonists on both sides, to battle strategy, and everywhere in between. Very well written, you could almost call it a page-turner.  For a computer guy like me, the bits about the folks doing code breaking in Hawaii were particularly interesting.  Particularly so, because I hadn't realized that the characters in Cryptonomicon were actually based on real life people.

I'd love to find more history books written like that.

The White Company

Interesting, and fun read. A bit different: it's a "knights in shining armor" book by the author of Sherlock Holmes, with some humor thrown in. It's also written in a not so easy to understand version of Ye Olde English, so non native speakers might not find it a pleasant read. I enjoyed it, although I didn't quite find it up to the standards of the Holmes novels.

A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity

Finished reading this:

It was ok, but I have some nits to pick:

  • He really lays into Italy. Granted, Italy has not done very well at all over the past 20 years, but the "Italy bad, US good" refrain gets a bit old in the book. A much more thorough look at Italy can be had via "Good Italy, Bad Italy" by Bill Emmott ( )
  • Markets are good, sure, I get that and agree with it, but he really glosses over some of the things they're not so good at. For instance, with the health care system here in Italy, no matter if I lose my job, I will *always* be able to take my children to the doctor. With no waiting lists. Now, granted, health care is a complex subject with a lot of tricky corners, but it's one example that springs to mind.
  • Some of his proposals seem a bit hand-wavy: eliminate the income tax in favor of value-added tax type mechanisms, somehow pro-rated for those who are not well off. So where's all the needed money going to come from? Seems a bit of a fantasy.

That said, one of his central points really bears repeating: being pro market does not necessarily signify being pro business, as most businesses would only be all too happy to squelch the competition. He favors government intervention where it would serve to keep the playing field open to new competitors.