Friday, January 31, 2020

Maoism: A Global History

Maosim is a history of the bread of socialism espoused by Mao Zedong. It is not a biography of Mao. Instead, it focuses on the rise to power of his brand of communism and implementation of similar principals in other countries. Maoism differed significantly from the Russian communism. (And both were quite different from what Marx envisioned.) Maoism supported violence. It was also very peasant-centric. It was ideologically inconsistent. What was preached was not necessarily what was practiced. It is somewhat politically pragmatic, willing to change to continue to stay in power. The cult of personality was also important. After Mao's death, the cult of Mao gradually faded in China, only to be gradually revived. Maoist China is arguably the most successful implementation of communism in the world. However, it has been very adapted to Chinese conditions, adopting many capitalistic components.
The discussion of Maoism in other areas of the world is enlightening. Overreactions to Maoism led to heavy American involvement in Vietnam. Maoist China has strategically given aid to other countries to help meet its means. Some countries (such as Cambodia) have adopted ideology. Others, like those in Africa would often just go through the motions. In the west, Maoism appeals to those outside the mainstream. The violence appeals to many developing countries.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 1

Nicholas Flamel was actually a real person and a an alchemist. His legend of the philosophers stone and immortality have grown over the years and were even mentioned in Harry Potter. The novel knits together real historical figures, mythology and pure fiction. It also takes place in a number of "real" places in California. It could almost be considered "historical fiction" except for the fact it takes place today. (Well a decade or so ago. It does date itself with people still using iPods and searching on AltaVista. Would people really search in Altavista at the same time they use Google Earth?)
A pair of twins think they are working innocent jobs at a bookstore and coffeeshop in San Francisco. However, they soon realize that there is much more going on. They see giant magical battles and discover that they have some magic themselves (And are prophesied by Abraham the mage.) The "bad guy" attempts to play one against another. He also manages to destroy one of the elders with special powers. However, the battle has just begun. This was clearly intended as the first of a series.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

The Girl of Fire and Thorns begins with the marriage of a 16 year old fat princess to a King. They meet each other for the first time on their wedding day. He is a "nice" man and a leader of a religiously conservative kingdom. She is the bearer of a "godstone" when gives her some power, but requires her to perform an act of special service. She travels with him to his kingdom, encountering challenges on the way. She gradually gets to know her entourage as well as people in her husbands kingdom. (However, he keeps their marriage secret for some time.) She also learns more about her role and religion and endears herself to her stepson. One night, she is kidnapped and brought out into the wilderness. There she learns more about the conflict in the greater kingdom. She soon becomes a leader of a vigilante group. They uncover perverse alliances and nearly get killed before completing the battle royale with the help of some discovered magic. She needs some help of stones similar to "Bad guy" magic to use with her "good guy" magic to defeat the bad guys and their magicians. It then suddenly ends, all nicely wrapped up, but ready for a sequel. This is a rare book where an overweight girl that loves sweets is an action hero.

Lockwood & Co.: The Screaming Staircase, Book 1

The Screaming Staircase is a detective story disguised as a ghost story. The story takes place in a England, somewhat similar to modern England. The main difference is that it has been infected with ghosts. A number of "ghostbuster" like agencies have sprung up throughout the country. The once catch is that only children seem to have the skills to identify and battle the ghosts. This leads to a number of agencies appearing with a "responsible adult" managing a group of children. The Lockwood Company is different in that it only has children. The novel centers on the story of a girl with "ghost skills" who, do to unfortunate events lost her past job. Lockwood was the only agency that would take her. Unfortunately, they manage to burn down a house, leaving the agency in deep trouble. Luckily, a rich man offers them a nice sum of money. They take his case, and then use both their detective and "ghost busting" skills to help solve it. It is fun and just irreverent enough to surprise you with the twists and turns.

The Little Book of Safe Money: How to Conquer Killer Markets, Con Artists, and Yourself

The Little Book of Safe Money emphasizes the safe. Inflation Protected Securities are the gold standard. They are guaranteed to beat inflation. Further investments should be a mix of stocks and bonds. The best are low cost index funds. Any investment with fees or yields that are higher than others is by necessity introducing too much risk. People should understand the market is filled with people. There is a seller for each purchase. Why do you think you are smarter than the person at the other end of a transaction? It is also important to focus on liquidity. If you don't have enough liquid assets you may need sell other investments at times with the market fails. It is also important to manage your "human capital". It is perhaps the greatest returning investment. However, you should also keep in mind that your human capital is invested in your company and industry. If your investments are in the same area, you may be too concentrated in a single area.
It is important to not take more risk than you need to. It is also good to understand psychology weaknesses, especially among men. The emphasis on the book is safety. Following the content will keep you with investments that lose minimal value in a down market, yet do not gain very much in a bull market. The principles do not exclude high risk investments. However, these are treated as "gambles" that can only be taken on with money that can be afforded to be lost.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia

Sea People explores the unfolding of the Western World's knowledge of Polynesia. It follows the numerous encounters that Europeans have had with Polynesian islands. The book details the evolution in the theories and thoughts of the migrations of the people. It also explores the differences in thinking among the primarily oral Polynesians and the visual (maps and writing) culture of the Europeans. If only the Europeans had taken better notes in their first encounters, we may have a better understanding of the cultures and people.
In the post world war 2 era there have been many theories and "experiments" done. Some postulated they must have floated from south America. A Scandinavian tried sailing on a raft and did manage to make it to an island. Others postulated Polynesians just floated around and happened to stumble into islands. Computer scientists later simulated travel to see where people could have traveled. This refuted some of the "floating randomly" ideas, and showed there must be a degree of intentional behavior. Decades later, there were attempts to revive Polynesian boat making and traditional navigation. They were actually able to navigate throughout the various islands. Modern genetic testing has also helped to present a better picture of where they have come from. However even that is somewhat mudddy. (This may be due to various bottlenecks.)
Currently, the accepted theory is that the Polynesian population came out of Asia, then spent a millenia in Somoa/Tonga before spreading out to the remaining islands. (Rat DNA has been used to help with the analysis.) Moana has helped to further popularize this understanding.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

At All Costs

At All Costs reads like the work of an ardent World War II buff who is trying to unearth some minutia of history. Malta sits on a key trade route, and was deeply coveted by the Axis powers. However, it lacked naturual resources and oil, and was heavily dependent on deliveries of goods and oil. The story in this book is on a convoy that landed in Malta. The books goes into the history of some of the men. (Such as the sailor who was trying desperately to get his wife out of Nazi-occupied Norway) It covers the flagging of the Ohio to the British fleet and the launching of the convoy. Ships were shot down. Many people died. Many others were rescued. Some ships had to be towed to make it to Malta. The allies also benefited from the infighting among the Axis. Germany didn't want to give Italy all the fuel it needed because the Italians seemed to spend most of it just moving around. The book proceeds along the primary narrative, but also pauses numerous times to describe "what happened" to some of the figures mentioned.

The Hunt

The Hunt is a vampire book in reverse. It is told from the perspective of a human who has managed to live incognito in a vampire society. The vampires are people, while humans are seen as primitive "hepers". He had grown up with his human family. However, they were gradually picked off by vampires, leaving him alone. He had learned to behave like a vampire, adopting their peculiar mannerisms, and taking care to groom himself so as not to expose body odor or hair, so that he would not be caught.
One day, they announced a lottery to join a "heper" hunt. He was selected and whisked off. He ended up isolated in his own room, and had to struggle to keep from being discovered. He was shocked to find that the hepers were actually like "people", and not a primitive breed. (He acknowledged the vampire misinformation about humans was probably similar to people's misinformation about vampires.) There is, of course, a girl involved. You can tell there is something different about her. The truth doesn't come out until the end as there is a big battle and some of humans manage to escape, only to find a secret about his family and questions as to what will happen in the future.
The book moves along quickly, and adopts bits of "hunger games" style of battle. It is a refreshing take on the dystopian "vampire" story.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Siege of Macindaw: Ranger's Apprentice, Book Six

Siege of Macindaw picks off right where the previous book left off. As the title implies, it primarily involves an attack on a castle. Will has teamed up with a motley crew of vikings and forest outcasts, along with the rightful heir to the thrown. They must help rescue Alice and save the kingdom from what could be a permanent war from the north. There are plenty of times when the heroes are saved barely in the nick of time. However, the stressful situations usually play themselves out quickly, leaving us rapidly with the happy outcomes we desire. The characters always seem to know exactly what to do, and the good guys almost always win. The young love aspect also gets played up. Will has no problem taking a castle, but dealing with a girl he likes proves to be very difficult.

Call It Courage

Call it Courage is the story of a young Polynesian boy who is initially branded a coward. He then overcomes his fear of the sea to go on a solo voyage. He successfully fends for himself out on the ocean and makes it back home as a brave man. It seems very similar to the story that was later adopted for Disney's Moana.

The Sorcerer of the North: Ranger's Apprentice Series, Book Five

The Ranger's Apprentice books take place in a fantastical world that just happens to look a lot like medieval England. Neighboring countries are typically portrayed in a negative fashion. (Though there does seem to be some affinity towards the Scandinavian vikings.) Book 5 is essentially the first of a two part story. Will becomes a ranger and gets his first assignment. On the way to the remote island, he finds a wounded dog. This dog was owned by a crook who will end up playing a grater role later on. Will uses his past experience to help prevent an invasion and make sure the local army is better prepared. Then he is called upon to perform a secret mission. He travels up north, disguised as a performer in order to figure out what is going on with sorcery and other things. He makes it up there and discovers plenty of weird things going on. Alice comes to join him in disguise also. However, she is captured. He attempts to rescue her, and the book ends in a cliffhanger.

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

In boomerang, Michael Lewis explores some of the sovereign players in the financial markets meltdown of 2009. He plays up the country stereotypes. Iceland is populated by men that do not listen to their wive.s After conquering the fishing industry, they figure they must be naturally gifted at investment banking also. Greek are loners who think everyone else is cheating, so must cheat themselves. The Irish had always suffered, yet they had a rapid economic turnaround. They guaranteed all banks, leaving each long-suffering Irishman with a huge share of debt.
One of the final discussions deal with California and local governments. Arnold Schwarzenegger thought he had a mandate to fix things. However, he discovered that people and politicians simply wanted a lot of services and don't want to pay for them. Thus there is a lot of future debt and a willingness to shift things to local governments. These governments end up spending hugs amounts paying for their current and former employees. Thus cities like San Jose can't afford to staff new community centers. Vallejo couldn't afford anything and ended up bankrupt.
Alas governments are just behaving like individuals who go into debt to pay for things later.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

Open Borders uses comics to make a compelling case for unrestricted or even "partially restricted" immigration. The authors counteract many of the anti-immigration arguments as either using bad math or scapegoating. They also provide alternatives for those concerned with too rapidly opening the doors. If we are concerned with immigrants consuming too many government benefits, why not charge immigrants for the privilege of coming? (Illegal immigrants pay huge fees to third parties to help smuggle them in. What if these immigrants were made legal and those charges went to the government instead?)
Negative arguments that low-wage workers depress per-capita income are countered with a basketball player example. A group of young children entering a room with NBA basketball players will lower the average height, but no NBA player becomes shorter. Similarly, allowing low-skilled immigrants may lower per-capita income of the new country, even while every individual sees an increase in their income.
Crime and lack of assimilation? Well, immigrants tend to have lower crime rates. (We just hear more about the "unusual"). However, they do assimilate to higher native-born crime rates. They also tend to assimilate into the language and culture, though it will often take a generation or two. The will also tend to come in waves. Puerto Rico has had "free" immigration to the US for decades. At first there were only a small trickle of immigrants. Gradually the numbers increased, before leveling off. Most went to areas where there was already a community.
The focus on the book is immigration to rich countries from poor countries. However, immigration of all types should be supported. People should be able to pick the different structure and services they desire. This has shown to be successful within countries. The United States has had many different waves of immigration. Even the abandonment of small towns provides benefit as it reduces them to a population that can be economically supported. China and India have experienced rapid economic growth coupled with a heavy migration from rural areas to cities. If this provides benefits within countries, why not without? Europe has done much of that with the European Union. I'm still amazed that the US and Canada do not have open borders. (I've got much more grief taking business trips from the US to Canada than to European or Asian companies.) Even the US once had very open borders.
The authors present compelling ethical arguments in favor of free migration. If it is unethical to discriminate against a potential employee on the basis of gender or skin color, why is it ok to discriminate based on where they happen to be born.
Open Borders make just too much sense. Alas, immigrants (especially illegal ones) are such an easy group to scapegoat. Rather than fix the problem with more free immigration, politicians of the left and right keep trying bandaids. They may regret it one day the US becomes like Japan and needs immigrants to prop up the economy, yet is not a desirable destination.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes - and What We Can Learn from Them

Sports has become a huge part of society today. A century ago, excellence in sports could be accomplished individually. Today, there is a whole team involved. Scientists optimize the best training and recovery regime. They mine data for minute improvements. Some bits are only applicable to the most elite athletes. Others are applicable to everyone.
The author also discusses doping and the line between allowed and not allowed substances. In one survey done earlier, many athletes said they would be willing to take a substance that would kill them in order to win at their event. Alas, that has happened, with the case of a rider dying in a grueling tour de france ride after taking amphetamines to improve his performance. Some substances, like steroids can also provide benefit that persists even after the substance has left. Other substances, like EPO can be naturally produced by training at appropriate altitudes. East Germany had a mandatory doping program - and still owns many of the female records.
Athletes can use cameras to analyze minute differences in their activities. Large amounts of data can be crunched to optimize performance of individuals and teams. A pitcher can be told the best way to pitch a player. A basketball team can identify the best way to defend a certain player. Cameras can analyze minute details of a runner's stride.
Gear also plays a role. There is a huge industry that attempts to produce better equipment. However, the governing bodies of sports also have a say so, limiting the equipment (and benefiting and hurting certain participants.) Athletes end up training towards the certain goal.
The science behind athletic performance is also filled with interesting common substances that seem to provide benefit. Baking soda, caffeine and beet juice all help in various ways. Extra sleep has shown to be one of the most effective ways of improving performance. However, much depends on the individual person. The base level of fitness for an athlete and their train-ability help define their maximum success. Time in an individual sport often doesn't matter as much as finding the "right" sport. People with earlier growth sports may get an initial jolt in a sport, but the overall suitableness of their adult body form will be most important for long term success.
The subject of maximum performance. Lactic acid had been seen as a limitation. However, that may have been a side effect. The limit may be simply controlled by the brain. (This can help explain the boost that athletes can produce at the end of a race.) One theory states that this may be based on a body's desire to not kill itself. Somebody that has a stronger desire to "win" may be able to best succeed by using their brain to overpower the pain.
Faster, Higher, Stronger was written by a journalist that has an interest in the topic. As such it is a great read loaded with interesting discussion.

The Sunless Countries: Book Four of Virga

People are unsure of their history. Historians are brought in and out. Some people create fusion "suns". Some aliens come to visit. People have different responses. In the end they realize the group they didn't like is actually a better ally. They had previously decided to create allegiances with sentient beings that seemed most like them. However, that was not the best group. They also discover the nature of their planet.
This is the fourth book in a series. Perhaps reading the previous 3 books would make this book more appealing.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020


An investment banker finally has a vacation. However, he is asked to visit a client he helped with. He ends up being drawn into a minor task with some old books that he thinks is below him. However, he keeps coming back. He also gets an open source CD game from a friend that seems hyper-realistic. The description of the game dates the book. It is on a CD-ROM and he is impressed with the "realism". He eventually discovers a student of medieval books who helps him to find the missing "codex" from an obscure writer. They go through many adventures. Through his friends, he learns that the nobles he is working for are crazy rich. He also learns there is some conflict between the spouses. The codex may have a clue unraveling their relationship. He discovers a relationship between the game and the codex (influenced by an easter egg in the video game, created by an engineer that had previously discovered the codex.) He also begins to doubt his life choices and ends the book in ambiguous circumstances with a whole lot of money.
The book is paced nicely, but largely forgettable. There are some "thriller" aspects to it, though it is more about a young adult coming to terms with his life choices.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire

The War at the Wall Street Journal details the takeover of Dow Jones by Rupert Murdoch. The staff of the Journal had a feeling of "exceptionalism" and admired their detailed analysis. They were afraid of the populist Murdoch. The Bancroft family that owned a controlling interest in Dow Jones felt they were protecting an important national treasure. They were deeply concerned about the "editorial independence" of the newspaper, yet they did not ask the staff for the details of why. (Yet another case of elites trying to represent others that they do not understand.)
The Bancroft family were not one unified force, and had some that wanted to sell, while others felt it was important to not let the company fall into the hands of the Fox News owner. They were business neophytes and had inadvertently told the world that the company was for sale. In the end, Murdoch's deal was something they could not turn down. The newspaper industry was suffering, and there were not any other significant suitors. In retrospect they lucked out. The "great recession" occurred shortly after the deal closed. News Corp's value plummeted, and they had to write down a significant amount of the purchase price of Dow Jones.
Would things be better if the company was not sold? Or would the newspaper have just gone bankrupt? And isn't it ironic that a company that advocates strongly for the free market finds itself more concerned with the "editorial independence" than providing what the market needs?

Friday, January 03, 2020

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

The Great Successor attempts to paint a picture of the life of the current leader of North Korea. However, very little is publicly known about him. North Korea publishes propaganda for the cult of personality. However, the purpose is to deify, rather than humanize, and is not a reliable source. Expatriate Koreans that knew him are reluctant to talk for fear of reprisals. This is a dictator that had his own brother killed in broad daylight on foreign soil. What we are left with is bits and pieces from official encounters (such as Dennis Rodman's basketball visits). We know he is overweight, attended school in Switzerland and likes basketball (especially the Chicago Bulls.) He also appears to be a shrewd leader, willing to eliminate anyone that stands in his way. (Beyond that, we don't know many details of his life. This book pieces together bits and pieces from former schoolmates (who often confused him with relatives), as will as people that worked with him (a Japanese sushi chef) and people that had left North Korea.
Due in part to the scarcity of source material, the book reads more as a set of research notes than a comprehensive narrative. North Korean likes to showcase the "good parts" for visitors, making it hard to get a good picture of the country. However, it is also allowing more market activity and growth today, with Kim putting the focus on economic growth, now that he has demonstrated that the country is a nuclear power. What does the future hold for one of the most closed countries on earth and its third generation leader? We don't know.

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931

Deluge describes how the events of World War I ushered in a massive change in the world order and a dominance of the United States. Some of the early sections offer a strong condemnation of US policy towards "minor" players in the war effort. Some small policy shifts in American policy may have led to massively different outcomes in Russia and China which would have impacted events in World War 2 and the cold war.
The book is fairly harsh on president Wilson. He seemed to be too idealistic, yet patronizing. It seems a lot of the issues of the time rose from people thinking they new what was best for other people. Many of the various revolutions revolved around charismatic elite claiming they spoke for the peasants. It seems to be a similar problem we have today. Leaders get the "masses" to side with them, but their solutions are just crafted to "look good" to the masses. Often they benefit the "elite" who know their way around the restrictions.
The interwar period was also significantly impacted by debt payment. It seemed that even back then, the bankers were able to extract the needed concessions from the countries involved. Reparations were only a small part of the system of transfer of payments, with payments to allies often being more significant. There was also little attention given to those outside of western Europe. How would things be different today if a few small changes were made in the late 1910s?

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir

Stan Lee's memoir was originally published as a graphic novel, then adapted to an audiobook. The production "feels" like a comic book. It moves at a fast pace with rapid fire scene changes. Stan Lee quickly goes through the history of his life and Marvel. There is no real "dirt" here. He tries to give everybody else the credit they are do, and does not delve into major conflicts. He likes what he does and discusses the good points as he helped launch the comic book industry. You can tell what he is proud of (even if they are not the most successful parts of the business.) You can also tell he loves doing movie cameos.