Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole

In Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, eleven-year-old Stella Rodriquez has been struggling with the loss of her father. She attempts to visit Carl Sagan at Nasa in order to have sounds of her father put on the "golden record". (The book takes place in the 1970s.) However, a small black hole follows her home. She gradually housebreaks the black hole. In the process, she discovers that anything eaten by the black hole is "erased" from ever having existed. She decides to use this to her advantage to remove all the "difficult" things form her life - including the memories of her father. Alas, her new puppy accidentally enters the black hole. She decides to try to rescue him. In the process she finds that bizarre things happen to things in the black hole (like the discarded sweaters coming "alive" and treating her diary as a religious text.) Through this process, she finally comes to peace with her father's death and her relationship with her family.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating without Giving In

Getting to Yes presents "principled negotiation" as a negotiating strategy. Key to the strategy is a focus on interests and objective criteria rather than specific positions. Often "positional bargaining" can bring other sides to dig in and attempt to save face with their position. Instead, a principled negotiator will attempt to separate the person from the problem and acknowledge the common interests and let the solution suggest itself. Key to carrying out the negotiation is knowledge of "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement". This differs from a "bottom line" in that it allows things to be adapted based on the result of negotiation. New ideas may be discovered during the process of negotiating that lead to solutions that were not intended earlier. Getting to Yes is filled with anecdotes of successful negotiating in action. Keeping your cool and resisting the urge to go into attack mode is an important part of the process. As the opposite party feels respected, they are less likely to come out with guns blazing. They can become more of a willing partner rather than an adversary. However, to succeed, they must also feel that the end result is valuable to them. If you come up with a result that is too beneficial towards you, then you may find yourself operating from a weaker standing in the future.

Pale Fire

Pale Fire is written as a scholarly annotated poem by a dead poet. The "author" (Charles Kinbote) is a scholar neighbor of the dead poet, Shade. It consists of an introduction by the author, the 999 line poem and the commentary of the poem. The introduction gives you a clue that there is something else going on here. The "author" is very full of himself, and feels overly impressed that he is friends with Shade. The poem itself is a very basic, juvenile work. Nothing that would be really "good" on its own.

The commentary seems to have nothing to do with the poem. The "explicator" uses minor bits of information in the poem to go off an a tangent about something totally different. There are a few main stories. One is about a King that escapes a fictional country. Another is about an assassin that is attempting to kill said King. The third tangent is somewhat more related to the poem and involves the life of Shade and his family and the relationship of Shade to Kinbote. The stories gradually become more intertwined, leading to some possible interrelations. Perhaps Kinbote is actually the King. Perhaps the murderer was trying to kill the King, rather than Shade. Maybe Kinbote is just a crazy stalker who has been much too obsessed with Shade and unable to accomplish significant scholarship on his own.

On one level, the work can be seen as a deep satire of academia. The Kinbote takes himself way too seriously and comes up with detailed interpretations that would be hard to justify based on the merits of the text. (Many long bits of commentary are related only in that Shade had written bits of the poem at the same time another event happened.) Even sections that may be somewhat justified are more highly influenced by the life of the commentator than the actual poet.

On another level, the use of a poem provides an innovative way to tell a "hypertext" story. Different sections can be followed back and forth to unearth the intertwined tales. They are a fiction wrapped in another fiction, making it open to many possible interpretations. I am not sure weather the fictional country is "real" in the universe of the story or if it is in fact made up in the mind of the "author." This opens many possible interpretations of the work.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

The Nordic countries tend to show up near the top of well-being surveys. What can we learn from them for our own culture? As a big fan of Nordic culture, I expected to buy into everything in this book. Alas, I found myself being extra critical. Some of the ideas seem pretty clear, if counter intuitive. You want to increase women's pay gap relative to men? Provide for better paternity leave.
Education was a little more questionable. It seems everybody likes to pick the part of the Finnish education success that best suits them. The author claims Finnish education was reformed primarily around equity. All schools were high quality and everybody had access to the highest level of education. (Even "private" schools would fall closely under the similar government scheme.) Alas, much of that is missed in the US. Seattle schools are obsessed with equity. Yet, the implementation method often involves lowering the bar. There is also the matter of private schools. If the public school district provides an equally bad experience for all, yet there are abundant, high cost, high quality private offerings is that really equitable? The author also noted some problems with "school choice" in other Scandinavian countries. Public school advocates will use this to fight against vouchers and charter schools. However, the school districts get into the same game with open enrollment, option schools and magnet schools. It is just school choice controlled by the education bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is the real difference. US schools have a significantly greater number of administrators per student. They also rely extensively on standardized tests. The antagonistic union situation results in teachers being treated more as cogs in a system rather than skilled professionals as they are in Scandinavia. School districts are also fragmented and rely on a local property tax base for funding. Nordic countries tend to be fairly homogeneous populations, however, there are plenty of states that are similar in population and homogeneity to Nordic countries. They could likely reform their education system to have similar success, but there will be big fights from both the parents and schools in order to get there.
The book lauds the social welfare benefits of the Nordic countries, while lamenting the lack of high cost of medicine and lack of social benefits in the United States. Taxes, however, are not too different in both. What gives? The United States often tries to do "socialism on the cheap". Rather than give a benefit like healthcare to everybody, it is only given out to a certain population under an income threshold. There are also a large number of tax breaks for different behaviors or activities. This makes for a highly complex system that is in many ways highly restrictive in behavior. You arguably have a choice in health plans in the United States. However, medicaid is only for the poor, medicare for the elderly, VA for veterans. There is a huge tax subsidy for private health insurance plans - but only if purchased through an employer. If you want to purchase insurance on your own, you lose out on most government largess (and tend to pay higher rates on top of that.) And this just gets you insurance which may or may not let you see the doctor you want. (And there is no guarantee that you can even purchase a policy that will let you see them.)
The Nordic model of benefits provides similar benefits to everyone. Anybody has access to the same health care at the same cost. Education, parental leave, unemployment and other benefits are provided by the government. This frees companies and citizens to focus on adding value rather that entrepreneurial risks will leave their family on the street. These benefits are covered by taxes. However, the tax rates are mostly flat, instead of highly graduated. They are still somewhat progressive, but not obsessively so as in the United States. In the US, it seems too much effort is spent on making a "progressive" tax system and then limiting benefits to those that are "in need". Then the tax code is filled with a bazillion loopholes to prevent these high taxes from negatively impacting "special interests". The result is a lower class that receives a large amount of benefits and pays no taxes and an upper class that can spend the effort to legally avoid taxes. This leaves a middle class that earns to much to qualify for benefits, yet doesn't have the resources to avoid taxes and thus pays away a large portion of their income. Public benefits tend to be stigmatized and associated with the "poor". (However, tax breaks carry no such stigma - even though they are essentially just another "payment" from the government. Would removing income validation change things? (It could also reduce some incentives for "reducing" income and working under the table to qualify for benefits.)
The book ends with the author becoming a US citizen. She was willing to sacrifice the Nordic safety net after falling in love with an American. Despite the challenges, there are advantages of the US way. I had met a Dane who was similarly desirous to move to the US due to the more dynamic start up culture. There may be something in the lack of safety net that pushes people to work harder. (Though there may also be the advantage of a much larger market.) There are many places in the US that would love to have a similar social welfare system. However, attempts often fall victim to entrenched interests (such as insurance companies and government agencies.) How can the United States keep the entrepreneurial spirit and move beyond third-world social welfare?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Daisy Miller

After the discussions of Henry James in Reading Lolita in Tehran, I decided to try out some more Henry James. Daisy Miller looked like a short work. It has a super simple plot. An American girl meets an American guy in Europe. They develop something of a friend/romantic relationship. The girl also meets with other local guys. She tells the American she was engaged. She later dies from a fever after a late-night rendezvous with a European guy. However, before she died, she wanted to make sure the American knew she was not really engaged. Surprisingly, the story is good and well written. Daisy comes across as a striving flirt among a "moderate new money" crowd. She is not part of the "upper" ex-pat crowd in Europe and she knows it. Yet, she also knows she is quite pretty and will use her charm on men to get what she wants. There are "rules" of societal engagement in the late nineteenth century America that she likes to flout. She takes advantage of her position in Europe to be different and try to live her life as she sees fit. You get the sense she is striving to move up the social ladder, but is not quite ready to commit. Eventually her behavior catches up with her, leading to her untimely death. The male interest, Winterbourne seems nearly passive in this experience. While initially taking an active role in the introduction to Daisy, he later seems to be a passive participant.
Despite being written almost 140 years ago, Daisy Miller reflects some of the "American Elitism" that is seen today. Despite spending extended time in Europe, the Miller's still view Schenectady, New York as the source of everything great. Even far away from home, the American norms are expected to apply.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Moby Dick

At times Moby Dick reads as a history of all things whaling. There are long descriptions of the different types of whales, the accuracy of whale's portrayal in art, the common procedures of whaling vessels and more. (He was convincing in saying that the whale should be considered a fish, even though it has lungs. This goes against are modern way of classifying, but is not made in ignorance, so much as a "sea-centric" means of grouping.
In addition to history, the novel explores human relations. Whaling was a true multi-cultural affair, long before "multi-cultural" was a thing. The novel begins with the narrator sharing lodging with a "cannibal", and goes to describe encounters with many others of diverse backgrounds. While the narrator is initially afraid of these different characters, he gradually treats them as respected crew members (though not necessarily as close friends.)
Even when the book gets into the "action sequences" as they are hunting wales, the author takes time to go into exquisite detail of how they process the whale onboard the ship and the intricacies of the "law of the sea" for who gets to complete a capture of whale.
It is not until the final few chapters of the novel that the focus is truly on being a novel. Now the ship and crew is enduring a typhoon and trying valiantly to battle Moby Dick. Ahab truly will stop at nothing (including his own demise) to help defeat the great whale Moby Dick. The action is intense. You could make a good abridgement by taken bits and pieces of the first 100 chapters and including the last few in their entirety.

Ace the Programming Interview

Ace the Programming Interview is the "coding interview" book that always seems to be available at the library. I have never seen it recommended by a big tech company for interview prep. It was written by a European and has more of a British Focus. It also feels dated.
The first section of the book deals with general interview preparation. It talks about preparing a resume, going through the phone and in person interviews and even negotiating the offer. It also covers general preparation and pitfalls. Their is advice here both for interviewers and interviewees. The author points out some of the pitfalls that we we run into in interviews. Some times and interviewer will ask questions that are too specific, or expect a candidate to be able to provide the same type of answer that they have implemented for a given problem.
The questions and answers are interspersed with the review of CS fundamentals. The author seems to be moth experienced with windows technologies. However, others are also mentioned. The sections cover common things such as big O notation, as well as such topics ans choosing the appropriate tools.
Other interviews tend to focus more on the practical programming questions. This book has some of that. It also attempts to provide more coverage of language-specific programming questions. (Alas, that can make it quickly dated as languages evolve or go out of favor.) However, it shines more in the general theoretical questions. Why are software projects usually late? Why do programmers do certain things? It provides good insight for preparing for a general programming interview, but wont necessarily prepare you for the grind of Google or Amazon technical questions.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Empathy is a key to raising a child today. How do we help children to develop empathy? The book provides a number of anecdotes (often in a classroom setting) showing how the research on empathy can be put in practice. Empathetic Children have a moral compass and think of "us" instead of "Them". They work for the betterment of everyone. Alas, there is a great tendency of children to focus on themselves and seek after their own personal desire fulfillment. It can require a lot of work to help teach them empathy.
The Epilogue contained a few points that had proven successful for teaching empathy.
  • Be friendly
  • Break Down Barriers
  • Give Kids a Voice
  • Play Chess and Unplugged Games
  • Create Parent Support Networks
  • Build Caring Relationships
  • Don't Give Up.
Working towards increasing empathy is a long process. Different children may respond differently. (Though how they respond may be surprising. A baby can help bring out empathy in groups that you would not expect.) This book provides some research and toolbox to help achieve greater empathy.

Sunday, June 10, 2018


Soonish is a humourous take on the technology we can expect to see in the near future. It focuses on "almost there" technologies (like fusion) and describes how close (or far away) we are from seeing them in our lives. The book is made to be easily accessible and includes plenty of brief cartoons illustrating the points. Each of the sections contains a description of the current state as well as where we will be going and concerns we may have. Each technology appears to be thoroughly researched via literature review as well as personal interviews with key contributors. In addition, the final chapter includes shorter summaries of technologies didn't quite make the cut for the book.
While the focus is on the "optimistic" side of new technology development, the ethical and pessimistic side also comes in play. Programmable matter sounds great when we talk about assembling the tool we need right when we need it. However, if a hacker could cause the matter to suddenly transform into a destructive weapon, we could be in big trouble. Similarly, what if that new "smart limb" could be controlled by an external party. Robotic construction could eliminate many of the good blue collar jobs, leading to greater income inequality. Synthetic biology could result enable all sorts of terrorism opportunities. And interfacing a brain with a computer? Well, it does not take much effort to think of the negative possibilities there. This book would be a great source for all sorts of science fiction scenarios.
Some of the technologies described in the book will probably never become a significant part of our lives, while others will gradually seep into general acceptance. However, guessing which ones will make it is a difficult task. Lets just hope we don't cause a disaster by rushing too fast into the "wrong" technologies.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The humble shipping container helped to usher in giant changes in the world economy. Box does an excellent job of presetning the history of the container. However, the writing at times seems to jump around, perhaps attempting to provide too many facts at once. Prior to the adoption of a standard container, the cost of loading and unloading a ship could exceed (in time and expense) the cost of transporting the good across the sea. There was little incentive to use larger or more efficient ships because they would just be bogged down in port. Containerization attempts were started with railroads. However, these ended up getting held back due to regulation. (The railroads were not allowed to charge cheaper rates even though the containers added to economies of scale.)
when a ship arrived in port, a large group of laborers was needed for the work of unloading and loading. However, this work was not very regular, and the wages paid could change based on supply and and demand on both sides. This opened things up to bribes, and later unionization (which was often along ethnic lines.) One union controlled west coast ports, while another controlled the east coast. By having a stranglehold on all port traffic, the unions were able to exert greater control than other unions. When containers threatened to reduce the labor needed for handling ships, the longshoremen negotiated significant benefits for themselves. (In essence they would "share" the benefits of containerization.) It is scary the impact that a single union could have. The unions only reluctantly accepted the progress of the container and had done their best to delay their inevitable.
Railroads too engaged in stupidity at the dawn of the container. They preferred using their boxcars rather than shipping containers. They were ideally situated to transfer containers from the ports to inland locations. However, they did what they could to not get that traffic, thus hampering their own viability and giving significant advantage to long range distance trucks.
The military initially had its own small version of containers. However, the logistic challenge that was Vietnam encouraged them to adopt the standard commercial container.
The container encouraged big container ports, often at the expense of small ones. Instead of smaller ships calling at many ports, a massive container ship would run between a couple ports. In most cases, it was major ports that expanded to be the container behemoths. However, there are some that came out of nowhere to dominate container traffic. One of the most interesting was the port of Fleixstowe in Britain. It was a privately owned backwater port not organized by the union. While the union was busy battling out with London-area port, Flexistowe built up support for container traffic and came to become the prime container port before the unions could work out their differences with the other ports.
Container traffic enabled cheap reliable transportation of good around the world, and thus encouraged just in time manufacturing. I wonder why something similar has not been tried for transportation of humans? What if we got in our pod that then whisked of to the train station, connected us to the airport, flew us across the ocean, and then took us to our destination. We could enjoy the comfortable journey without the slog of transferring between multiple modes. Could we find a way for people transit to work the same way as goods transport?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran is memoir by Azar Nafisis describing the author's experience reading Lolita and other books of English literature in Iran during the time of the Islamic revolution. She was born in Iran, then educated in the United States and returned to teach in Iran right as the revolution was taking place. At first, the revolution looked like it would be a positive experience. However, it later became more totalitarian, eventually shutting down the university and leading to her leaving the country. She does note that even the participants in the revolution were complex people. (At one time, the more radical Islamists would defend her while the liberals were silent.) She brought with her some western sensibilities that she wanted to live in Iran. Alas, the revolution would spin from crackdown to liberalization leaving the life of a westernized intellectual precarious. (It was interesting that they would use "Switzerland" as the example of a lax moral state.) The youth were often the ones to provide the muscle behind the revolutionary effort. (Hmm... Are the professor shoutdowns the first step of that in the US?)
The history of the revolution is secondary to the life of individual people through literature. The book is divided into four sections, each based on an author or work of literature. The book provides excellent literary criticism by weaving the story of the people studying the work with the characters and themes of the book. Lolita is in part a story of oppression, but also one of willingly taking the "easy path". Forcing everyone to fully cover themselves can be just as offensive as forcing people to not be covered. Great Gatsby superficially glamorizes "immoral" behavior, but deep down it is condemning it. The subtleties are lost on censors. The works are all fiction. They are presenting tales of the conditions of people to help us today.
While the first two sections tended to focus on individual works, the last two where geared more towards authors' as a whole - Henry James and Jane Austen. Nafisi finds parallels in the human condition and subtleties of reaction within the current Iran. Women's rights are greatly restricted in the Islamic republic. Even some devoutly religious find issues with their identity. With everyone forced to adopt the headscarf and covering, the devout no longer are set apart physically. Courtship and marriage takes on a very different meaning. People are not supposed to even look upon the opposite sex, yet they still have the sexual urges. They complain about hypocrisy among those in power, yet are often reluctant to challenge themselves within or without of the confines of the rules. Those in power in Iran are often portrayed as reactionary buffoons. One student sets himself on fire after no knowing how to deal with life after the end of the Iran/Iraq war. In another case, an attempt is made to murder a group of authors by getting them on a bus and driving them off a cliff. However, in spite of this, there is a reference shown to the unifying force of the death of Ayatollah.
In the end, the author leaves Iran to come teach in the US. Many of her friends have also left Iran, while at the same time Iran had made some small steps towards liberalization.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts

Negotiations over dollars and contracts can be fairly straightforward. Each side wants to get ahead and is willing to give and take a little to get what they desire. However, when emotions and deeply held values are at at stake, things become much more thorny. How do you negotiate when each side has "unchangeable" values that must be respected. Daniel Shapiro provides clues to help us recognize different "non-negotiables" and to successfully work with them. He describes many situations that he has dealt with. In one example, he divides a group up into 6 small groups. Each group much come to consensus on a number of difficult questions (such as should the death penalty be allowed). After each group has come to agreement, all the groups must come together and agree to a consensus within a few negotiating rounds or the earth will be destroyed. Despite only recently adopting their group values, each individual tribe held to them. In almost all cases, the earth ended up being destroyed before the team could reach a conclusion. In another role-play, a group was divided into groups, with one group gradually accumulating more wealth in the came. The "haves" were pulled out to a fancy area to plan the rules going forward. The "have nots" mutinied and refused to even listen to the plan of the "haves" - even though there plan was to ensure that the have-nots benefited more. They saw the group as "them" and could not trust them. They were out of tribe.
This "tribe" behavior often happens in the real world, with nations, religions and even sports teams. The attachment is real, even if illogical.
Deeply held values can also be a stumbling block in negotiations. If the two sides hold different, unmovable values, how do you negotiate a common solution? Often the solution is to explore the root value. Is there a solution that can satisfy both sides without compromising values. (An example given was a wife who wanted a Christmas tree for what it represented growing up with her father. The husband did not want one because they were raising their kids Jewish and it would not be appropriate. The solution they came up with was to visit Grandpa on Christmas with the Christmas tree, thereby providing for the memories and keeping their home pure to the Judism.)
Convenient means like problem solving and positional bargaining are often insufficient for resolving emotionally charged conflicts. We can often get in a state of what the author calls "Vertigo". Time passes. Each side is intent on "winning" the conflict and emotion takes over. Participants lose awareness of the outside world and lets emotions take over a negative focus. You need to work to jolt yourself out of this state. Sometimes a surprise or bringing in a legitimate authority can help to break free. A somewhat similar problem is the repetition compulsion. In that, the argument just goes in autopilot as both sides repeat the same thing that has been said before. It is tougher to deal with. It is helpful to identify the "lure" to try to avoid the triggers and stop it before it starts.
Taboos can be both good and bad. Shared taboos are beneficial for a group. However, differing taboos can lead to conflict. Possible options include accepting, chiseling away at the taboo or tearing it down. The key is to find the best way to work around the taboo so that it doesn't interfere with decision making. Similar to taboos, varying sacred values can make agreement difficult. The author uses a scale of "Important, Pseudo-sacred, Sacred and Sacred Sacred" to describe the different degrees of sacredness. These are internal values that may or may not correspond to outward religious practices. To one party "keeping the house clean" is something important, while the other side sees it as a sacred value that must be kept. Understanding these differences can help resolve problems.
Emotionally charged conflicts can be very challenging. Understanding the values and identity that each party has can be very useful in reaching a resolution. Identifying the sources of emotional challenge can help to avoid the pitfalls and obtain a peaceful resolution. The book provides many useful tools for what will be a challenging process.

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.

Saturday, February 24, 2018


Messenger is the third and shortest book in the Giver Quartet. It follows more closely with the second book, and only superficially connects to the first and forth book. The series feels like two separate ones. Giver and Son go together, while Messenger and Gathering Blue are tied together. Had they been marketed as such, the reading experience would be much less frustrating.

Gathering Blue

The end of The Giver left many questions unanswered. You would think the sequel would fill in the blanks. Alas, in that you would be mistaken. (Try "Son", the fourth book in the series.) Instead, Gathering Blue takes us to a totally different area of the same "Giver" world. A young girl has a special gift, but also a physical abnormality. She is brought into the castle to serve with others. She learns that though she is treated well, she is also being "imprisoned" to have her talents used for the benefits of others. She eventually discovers her father and leaves. In some ways it is a repeat of the Giver, with a similar story arch in a very different community. Other than preparing us for the community of the fourth book, the second book is not critical in the Giver series.

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate

Ninety Percent of Everything provides insight into the shipping industry. Today, it is often so cheap to ship things long distances that we think nothing of buying "cheap junk" from halfway around the world. However, things still need to travel across the ocean to get to us. The focus of the book is the ocean travel. The author spends time with a ship crew to experience shipping first hand. Crews typically come from less developed countries, where the wages from life at see can allow their family to live quite well back home. We also get plenty of coverage of the Somali pirates and possible reasons for their behavior. Alas, with the focus on the people at sea, there is not a whole lot of coverage of the whole logistics of the operation.