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?