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.

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

Unexpected "shocks" to the normal way of doing things can often help spark the creativity needed to accomplish something truly amazing. Messy opens with the story of a jazz pianist that was going to walk away from a performance due to the poor condition of the piano. However, as a special favor to the promoter, the pianist performed and produced one of the top performances of all time. The condition of the piano forced the pianist to improvise and go out of the "comfort zone" and produce something great.
Attempts to be fully objective often produce bias in how the "objective" criteria are created. External factors have a habit of rearing their ugly head. APGAR scores for new borns lead to more c sections. Diversity produces benefits when there are true differences. Cities that section every thing off in neat areas not only produce great amounts of traffic, they eliminate many chances of spontaneity that can lead lead to positive growth. Providing too much protection from failure reduces the chances of small problems, but increases the odds that a problem will be catastrophic. (The book gives the example of the Air France jet that crashed over the ocean. The pilots were accustomed to auto-pilot, and had difficulty responding to abnormal conditions. Standardization and protection can lead to us keeping the "same old bad".
Startups help to inject new messiness into the system. Amazon did stupid stuff early on. They would even go out and buy toys at retail, losing money on the transaction to get it to the customer. That messiness allowed them to succeed.
People adapt to meet criteria, even if that hurts the big picture. (For example medical appointments in 2 days mean none available in advance. Surgeon ratings on outcomes lead to more unnecessary surgery. Actually results show little difference in surgeon compared to entry condition of patients.) Being able to rely on some messiness can help the big picture to be better - even if there are parts that are not so great.

Thursday, February 08, 2018


After meandering around a few other side stories, the Giver series finally returns to the original story line in the conclusion. Son starts out in the same village as the Giver. We follow the story of a girl who became a birth mother. We gradually learn that she had lived at the same point in time as the Giver. She had a difficult birth and was then reassigned to a different job. However, in reassigning, they had forgotten to give her the "pills" that cut off emotion. She had the yearning to see her son, and eventually found him at the nurturing center. After he Jonas flees with baby Gabe, she ends up boarding a boat and ending up in another village. There she discovers a society vastly different from her own. (It somewhat resembles a somewhat primitive society with little technology, but a degree of learning and understanding.) From there, she builds up strength to climb out and find her son. Alas, she makes a great trade with the Trademaster and loses her youth in exchange for seeing him. She doesn't let him know until near the very end.
You could easily jump from the first book to this book in the Giver series. The two middle ones provide deeper understanding of the world, but are not really needed to follow these plot points. I would have been fine with the "Trademaster" being removed from the book. He seems to be added to allow a "superhero" conclusion where good triumps over evil. However, the supernatural abilities just don't fit well with the rest of the work.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

What are fifty inventions that helped shape the modern economy? This book doesn't attempt to find the 50 most important inventions, but 50 that have had impact. Some of the things are classical physical inventions like the plough and plastic. Others like management consulting and Seller Feedback are modern, abstract innovations that are important to our economy. There are also cautionary tales. Attempts were made to ban leaded gasoline in the 1920s. However, lobbying get it going for another half decade before it was eliminated. What other things in our current society are still being forced upon us by the regulatory framework and inertia. (Cars seem to come to mind.)
The book does a good job provided self-contained stories of individual innovations together with the glue that holds it together. Paper money is in interesting innovation, but the story of how it came about makes it come alive. The Smart Phone has quickly become an integral part of our lives. However, it is an amalgam of technologies produced primarily via government sponsored research. Compilers allow code to be more easily programmed, bringing programming to the masses and allowing higher and higher level programming. The barcode had been "invented" multiple times. The technology was the easy part. Getting producers and retailers to agree on to use it in a standard way was the challenge.
While a number of different innovations could have been included here. The author does a good job justifying the ones included and providing an informative and entertaining work.

Monday, January 01, 2018

A Mind at Play

A Mind at Play deifies Claude Shannon as a renaissance-type genius who is able to make contributions to any field he desires, yet is likely to leave his greatest ideas unfinished. You would have a tough time finding any criticism in this work. He grew up a tinkerer in small-town Michigan. He was super smart, and was great at understanding and applying math. He was also able to pick up domain knowledge of other fields and made great contributions to genetics research (that were only recently "rediscovered"). However, his primary contribution was the theory of information transmission. Alas, only briefly discusses what this theory is, leaving us wondering why he is so important. (Though this may be in part because it seems so obvious today.) He made some of the earliest "thinking machines", such as a "maze running mouse" and chess computers. He lived to see the dawn of the information age, but was suffering from Alzheimer's at the time and was thus barely able to comprehend it.
While I found the book to be a excessively laudatory, I did enjoy the descriptions of the time at Bell Labs. Having a bunch of people turned lose at doing whatever they wanted seems to be one of the advantages of monopolies. Any research that could be tangentially related to phone company business was fair game. The huge number of innovations that arose from Bell Labs validates its value. Imagine if we allowed more researchers the freedom to investigate ideas rather than spend endless hours writing grant proposals or helping the companies short-term bottom line? We see some of that with the big tech companies like Google and Facebook these days. Alas, a lot of the innovation today is in the small startups, and that funding is driven by the ability to appease the venture capitalists.