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.