Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Why Read Moby Dick

Why should we read Moby Dick? Nathaniel Philbrick gives us a number of reasons in this short book. It serves as a nice intro, giving us background in Mellville's life and times as well as the book itself. When it was published, Moby Dick was not very successful. However, after the civil war, and especially after the great world wars, the novel increased in popularity due to its timeless themes. Melville was also a stickler for details giving the novel additional value as a history of a bygone era and profession. Moby book is a long book, and Philbrick acknowledges you can get plenty out of abridgments and other versions. Now, I want to read it.

Joy Luck Club

Joy Luck Club is a collection of stories of Chinese women who have lived in San Francisco. Some stories deal with life in China, but most deal with life in San Francisco. In one, a mother remarks that she hoped to raise a Chinese woman with all the benefits of America, but instead got an American woman. That becomes a sad theme in the book. In spite of growing up in a large Chinese community, these women have mostly lost their Chinese culture. They live like Americans. When they go back to China, they are clearly foreigners. However, in America, they are often not seen as "true Americans" (In one story, she is mistaken for Vietnamese.) The old culture is lost, but there is not a new culture to replace it.
The Chinese mothers come across as the powerful figures. Even in a culture that placed little importance in women, the mother still became the controlling figure in their children's lives. Once in America, the mothers could continue to rely on some of the "old world" knowledge to see through the trappings of materialism in America to realize that their daughters are not doing as well as they thing they are. Alas, it takes adulthood for the daughters to finally come around. Most of their troubles are those typical of upper-middle class Americans. The Chinese culture helped push them out of the "poor refugee" status, but still left them to struggle with life.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Stones Into Schools

Stones into Schools comes across as a "behind the scenes" tale of the quest to provide education for the "uneducated" in the impoverished areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The focus is primarily on girls, who are often denied education due to lack of resources and cultural restrictions. They hope the education will "set them free" to help achieve their full potential. (However, what they do achieve is still up to them, and may be different than what we westerners would desire.)
In order to help people, it is important to understand them and work with them. There were many rural communities begging for schools. A great deal of success can be had in working with them to fulfill their needs. Something "owned" by the locals will last longer than something inflicted upon them. The author mentions times when the schools were spared the wrath of militants because a local religious leader was involved with the school and another time where the "inspectors" were so thrilled with the playground they had no issues with the school. However, there were also cases of foreign companies donating expensive camping tents to help people after a natural disaster. Alas, the people mad fires in the tents, causing these expensive tents to burn down and eventually to be used primarily as fuel.

Three Below: Floors Book 2

Leo is now the owner of the Whippet hotel. The books starts with his dad marrying his best friend's mother. He now has a brother to lead him on adventures. This time, he needs to go on a quest to get money to pay the property tax bill (while the parents are out of town on a honeymoon.) To make things challenging the former hotel manager is planning on swooping up the hotel property by paying the taxes. they need to act quick. In the process they explore the lower levels of the hotel. Their adventures go further and further into the realm of fantasy. This book is clearly in the realm of children's literature. There are just too many holes and bits of fantasy to keep it believable. (The numbers all seem too low. Even the ridiculously high tax seems low for a block in Manhattan. The subterranean creatures and inventions also go way beyond the realm of our world. And of course, there is Merganser who seems to have nothing better to do than lead boys on a quest and make sure they don't get harmed. As long as you turn off critical thinking, you can enjoy this quick escapist read.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back

The Undercover Economist Strikes is a humorous primer on basic macroeconomics. Chapters began with quotes - humorous quotes form Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy lead off a couple of the early chapters. Most of the book is in a conversational "question and answer" format. The "pupil" asks a question which the "economist" answers, leading to additional follow up questions. The answers tend to light-hearted anecdotes that provide an exaggerated understanding of an economic condition. Chapters discuss an early macroeconic modeling system that used hydraulics to solve economic differential equations to model a country's economy. (Enterprising economics even hooked the export pipe of one model one model to the import of another to model the impacts policies would have on other countries.) We also have money supply explained using the failure, success, and failure of a capitol hill babysitting co-op. Printing money can be good, unless it leads to hyper inflation, in which case it is very bad. People can be irrational, and be much more concerned with a drop in their salary, even though a small increase in times of high inflation tends to be worse. In classical economic models, prices rise and fall based on supply and demand. However, in the real world, there are many factors which cause the prices to be sticky. This can often lead to negative economic outcomes. (It is difficult to cut wages. Thus, unemployment tends to worsen when the economy is bad - even though many people would be willing to work for a smaller amount of money.)
By using humor, the author is able to provide explanations to both sides of controversial economic policies such as stimulus and inequality remedies without being dogmatic.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Time Travel: A History

Time Travel is a rambling exploration of the history of time travel. It bounces around from treatments of time travel in literature to scientific papers on theoretical physics. Treating time as a 4th dimension came in vogue. However, in our world, we have only been able to move forward. Being able to move backwards seems like a logical possibility. However, why haven't we seen changes in our history? Perhaps the world is in our "best possible world". Or maybe it is just not possible to travel in time. Or perhaps it is just too hard for us to comprehend. Science Fiction stories have explored a number of possible paradoxes that could result from time travel. (What would happen if somebody went back and met themselves? Or what if they killed their ancestors or prevented them from meeting?) The book rambles around to include a history of science fiction with some significant authors (such as H.G. Wells and Heinlein.) It also looks at the treatments by physicists such as Einstein as well as the philosophy of time travel. We also explore the history of "time". (Does the consideration of the "past" separate man from other animals?) There are many interesting parts. However, there is little overwhelming thesis other than "this all has to do with movement through time."

Monday, April 16, 2018


A young boy works with his dad in maintenance at an exotic and very posh hotel. The owner amassed a huge fortune and felt it was important to make all sorts of wacky inventions. In the course of the book, the boy goes through a quest where he learns more and more about the hotel and eventually discovers who is sabotaging it and what the future will be. He also finds a new friend and prepares himself for future leadership roles. The hotel turns out to be a kid's dreams with rooms ranging from "life size pinball machine" to a recreation of central park (along with many "secret" rooms in between. Ducks are also very important. The story is devoid of extreme drama and engaging for young readers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Fooled By Randomness

Fooled By Randomness explores the importance of random events in life and society. On the outset, the author states that he wanted this book to be fun to write, and tried to avoid too many citations. He does cite some literature, but more often he helps provide alternate explanations for results. For example, many studies have tried to tease out what makes successful businessmen. Intelligence is not seen as super important. However, the propensity to take risks does stand out. However, if you looked at bankrupt businessmen, you may see similar results, likely with an even higher "risk taker" rating. The highly successful may appear to be average because they are. They just happened to get lucky. The finance world tends to revere the young, successful traders. However, finding the next "big shot" is essentially a crap-shoot. One person may take risks and get lucky. However, many others will not have the same luck. An older trader is probably your best bet, because they have managed to survive for a long time without imploding.
It is very hard for us to separate out the "random luck" from "skill". Today CEOs get paid enormous salaries to lead companies. However, do they really bring anything to the table? It is difficult to precisely quantify the value that they add. It could be that they just happen to be charismatic and happened to be heading a well-run company. Lower level individual contributors tend to produce results that are much more easily quantified. But as you move up the management chain, randomness plays a larger and larger roll. Even companies as a whole benefit enormously from randomness. Microsoft became a mega software company because IBM used DOS and IBM's architecture became the dominant in the industry. A lot of dice rolls went their way and resulted in a mega company. How much of Bill Gates' fortune is due to luck and how much due to skill? His net worth may be a million times that of some contemporary programmers with equivalent talents. (This also brings in to place network and building effects. Due to "randomness", early success may lead to greater future opportunities that can help develop different skills in the future.)
Even when we know the role of randomness, we are still likely to "fall for it." This can sometimes result in self-defeating behavior, as the mental benefit from a gain less than the harm from a similar loss. It takes skill to avoid "distractions" of randomness and live our lives in the best way possible.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World

The Logic of Life is an economics book in the vein of Freakonomics. It provides logical explanations of seemingly illogical behaviors by people. In many cases, psychological studies tease out logical behavior from seemingly illogical outcomes.
One example was the discussion of racism. "Bigoted racism" would be expected to weed itself out of the business world. If businesses that turn down the best candidates merely because of external characters, would suffer and falter. (A simple example could be seen in basketball where all white teams became at a significant disadvantage compared to integrated teams.) However, "rational racism" is much more difficult to remove because it does provide some "stereotypical" advantage. On average members of certain groups will do better, therefore companies are more likely to hire those in the group. Those in the "out group" still suffer, but companies that practice it are still successful, thus making it more difficult to remove. These groups can also self-reinforce their standing. A Catalan who studies computer science rather than Catalan may be shunned by his community for attempted to do something outside the community. This leads to fewer people being willing to study and succeed and thus an overall reputation of community being inferior. Once the group is deemed inferior, a logical company would prefer the stereotypically better group, and thus perpetuate the inferiority.
Similarly, devolution of areas to isolated ghettos can be explained by a logical behavior. A perfectly integrated community may be functioning well. Each resident likes to have a certain number of similar people nearby, and that balance is properly met. However, if one resident moves out and is replaced by a "different" person, that could upset the balance. Now one person feels they are too different, and move out, this starts the chain reaction which results in the community dominated by a single group.
There are a number of additional examples in other areas of logical explanations for something that seems illogical on the surface. Groups can do strange things when they are composed of individuals doing "logical" things.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Go-Giver

The Go-Giver uses the common business book trope of a salesman meeting with a "guru" to gain insight in ways to improve his career. Alas, the meetings do not help him to meet his original sales quota, but it does serve as the jumping point to his new career.
The Go-Giver philosophy is basically "give and receive authentically". You must freely give to others without expecting anything in return. You should also let others give to you without making things to difficult. And finally, you should be true to yourself and not come across as fake. The values are anti-narcissistic, yet in the long run paradoxically helps benefit you. It makes personal and business life better as everybody is seeking to help others.