Friday, January 28, 2011

Prince Caspian

The children, on their way to boarding school, are summoned back to Narnia. There they find great kingdom mostly in ruins. An evil group has taken over, and the few rebels (lead by rightful heir Prince Caspian) have summoned them to help defend it. They win in a big battle, and discover that the usurpers to the thrown were also humans extracted from earth.

This is more of an adventure story, with the religious allegory present, much less strong than in the "Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". However, there are still issues of faith, with Lucy maintaining a belief in Aslan, even though others cannot seem to see him. She is rewarded for this faith, but still has to struggle to convince the others.

It is a well written book that could stand alone, but is better read after the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly

This book would have made a good academic paper. It does not make a good popular economics book. It spends forever explaining how it got its data, how it analyzed it, what other people did, and what they missed. This would be a nice few pages in an academic paper. But as book chapters, they get very old.

The book is also very repetitive. The authors explain what they are about to do, they explain how they did it, then they recap their explanations. Then in another chapter, they explain it again, just in case you skipped an earlier chapter.

The central point is that bank panics and government defaults have also happened and likely will continue. Often they occur when governments and others overextend themselves in boom times, thinking that this time is different. Governments often default out of convenience rather than necessity. They can also use tools like inflation and other currency debasement to reduce the debt.

These many chapters are primarily lead in for the brief final chapter on the current financial crisis, the real-estate bubble induced "great contraction". This is shown to be a global contraction with many of the similar characteristics of other crises. The authors make pains to point out that all the signs were similar to previous panics (including people adamant that "this time is different"). However, even this knowledge is not useful if politicians are not willing to act on it. (And since acting would usually involve breaking a big boom, they are reluctant to do so.)

Summarize the last chapter, and you could have a good paper, using ample data to show that this time is not different. Alas, this gem is hidden under 20 times its weight of repetitive blather.

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

This is a compilation, primarily of "journalist" articles before, during and after major financial crises of the past few decades. Some of the articles included are well written and insightful, while others border on garbage. The intention of the book is good. However, it doesn't quite seem to carry out the goal. Since the essays differ significantly in tone and source, it is difficult to get a coherent picture of the true nature of the events and the opinion surrounding them.

The Great Crash 1929

This is a very readable history of the 1929 stock market crash. It provides the background of the crash, with the market's runup, and the gradual slump before the big crash day. It also carries on with the gyrations and false recoveries that happened shortly thereafter. He identifies s number of factors, including opaque investment trusts, extreme leverage, and self-investment as causes. These were all amplified by the boom that people thought would never end. In the end, it set the template for a crash similar to others that we have seen since. This is one of the better books on financial panics.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Internal desire and creativity is motivating. For jobs that require some independent thought it is best to give people the freedom to carry out things they see fit. For these tasks, giving external incentives could backfire. (A case in point is the artistic value of commissioned artwork.) Traditional incentives are, however, still valuable for repetitive tedious tasks.

The book presents a valid point and advocates a new "motivation 3.0" methodology to help increase motivation. However, the book also rambles on for too long, and could easily present the same content in a short essay. There are some good examples (such as Best Buy's schedule-less work environment.) However, even these examples seem to be repeated from different angles. The author also seems to be a little too serious about himself and his topic.

Creative freedom is highly motivating. If the base level of compensation is appropriate, the better position would allow people to thrive and productivity to increase. This does not seem like groundbreaking material. Basic corporate environments have been moving in this direction for some time. About 20% of the book does a good job of presenting the background of motivation theory and the reasons for adopting the creative motivation in our modern society. The remaining 80% is repetitive filler.

The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime

The Big Over Easy is a great example of Jasper Fforde's British absurdest humor. His characters inhabit a world where nursery rhyme characters run around in society, yet everyone knows they are just non-real characters. They are all very British and have knowledge of nursery rhymes, yet still experience the characters as they would real people.

The principle character in this book is a "Nursery Crimes Division" officer, Jack Spratt. He was unable to get a conviction in his previous case (against three pigs convicted of murdering a wolf). Now he is investigating the death of Humpty Dumpty. It seems fairly standard, until he discovers the involvement of shoe companies and biological experiments. Jack also runs in to Prometheus who he invites to be a boarder at his house (Greek Gods that have been alive for thousands of years are not at all out of the ordinary.)

The main police force is part of the the "real world". However, it has some quirks. The force is dominated by the "guild of detectives" members. Detectives are chosen for the guild in part due to their success, but more importantly due to their ability to detail their success for the "Amazing Crime Stores" magazine. Jack has applied for membership in the guild, though he does not seem likely to receive membership. A former colleague, however, is a guild member, and attempts to obtain all of the strong convictions for himself. The department is also under budget constraints, and seriously considering disbanding the NCD. (The NCD is extremely short on budget, and a dumping ground for aliens and newbies like Jack's new partner, Mary Mary)

I read the sequel The Fourth Bear first and preferred it. Though the difference may be do more to the order in which the were read than anything else. It seemed to be more comfortable with the over-the-top inside-joke nursery-rhymes-in-real-life story. This one, however, is more of a traditional detective story, set in a very bizarre surrounding. (Ok, a very bizarre surrounding with plenty of funny moments.)

The Horse and His Boy

This is a light, simplistic fantasy story that even I liked. A boy runs away from servitude with a talking horse. They eventually meet up with another horse and person. They then take part in a big battle where the good guys win and people get married and live happily ever after.

The story seems more simple than the other Narnia stories and feels much lighter in tone. It feels more like a 30 minute cartoon than a feature length movie.

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

In most of this other books, Simon Winchester has done a great job with a narrow topic. He goes off on tangents, provides interesting anecdotes and brings out interesting bits of trivia to bring alive a small event or person.

In Atlantic, he tries to tackle a larger topic, and the results are mixed. He does provide plenty of anecdotes and tangential stories. However, the central focus is missing. Just about any part of modern western civilization could be tied to the Atlantic. The book ends up doing little more than spurting out groups of semi-related facts. It is still a fairly readable nonfiction book, but falls way short when compared to his other books.

I was most impressed with the discussion of global warming. He provided one of the most intellectual honest accounts of the facts of global warming. He acknowledges there has been some mischief going on in scientific circles. However, in spite of this, there is very clear indication that the earth temperature has been increasing. There is a suspicion that this has been caused by man's activities. However, there could also be cyclical factors in play. While the Katrina hurricane season was especially severe, there have been other very calm seasons that followed. And in spite of what seems to be an increase in catastrophic events, these have been mere blips on the geological scale. (With the damage to humankind caused in part by people's propensity to locate themselves in danger zones.)

While there are some good bits in here, this is one Simon Winchester book that can easily be skipped.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Dave Barry in Cyperspace

I almost like Dave Barry. His humor columns are almost rip-roaring funny. I almost really like his style.

But there is something that just gets on my nerve. I can't quite put my finger on it, but perhaps is the way he strays just a little too far from the facts. You almost hit the "yes I can relate, this is true". Then he veers off to the "this is ridiculously absurd" and starts to eek out laughs, before returning to the relational humor. It comes close to working, but doesn't quite make it.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace is a take on computers, circa 1996. Windows 95 is the big thing. The internet is there, but still reached by dial up modems. He provides a fair amount of facts regarding the history of computers, but also ventures off in to ridiculousness. He hits the "time wasting" aspect of computers right on.

Ironically, the cover features a MAC, while the book focuses almost exclusively on windows machines. (Macs are derided for being too easy to use.) Well, hey, while Macs are not good for time wasting, at least they make good covers.