Monday, June 28, 2021

On War

In On War Clausewitz analyses warfare in general, with a special focus on recent history (the time of Napoleon.) War is not a means by itself. Instead, it is an extension of politics and diplomacy when needed. Aspects of battle and retreat are analyzed. There seem to be a lot of parts covered, but not much pontificating on the best ways to do things.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Chaos Monkeys - Revised Edition: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley

I was drawn to this book after hearing that it was so controversial that it got the author fired from Apple. That situation seemed to be a case of wokeness gone amok. Apparently, the company had already vetted him and the contents of the book. However, a few weeks after he started, some other Apple employees became offended and he got the kibosh.

The book does complain plenty of things that can be offensive. However, the official line was that it was misogyny that got him fired. The portrayal of woman is generally what you would expect to hear from a frat boy. They are primarily an outlet for sexual urges. However, the book also describes powerful women. It seems more balanced than a simple misogynistic rant.

The main theme of the book is that "work" is everything in the Silicon Valley startup culture. Family and long term relationships are sacrificed at the the startup altar. However, just working hard does not guarantee success. There is a huge amount of luck and manipulation involved. 

In the story, he started out working on his doctorate at Berkeley. He then jumped at the chance of making huge amounts of money as a quant on Wall Street. He tired of that and went to work in Silicon Valley. He realized that his company was going nowhere, so he got together with a few friends to create a start up. They had moderate traction, but were looking for an exit. They got interest from both Twitter and Facebook. The company sold to Twitter. He went to Facebook. At pre-IPO Facebook, work was an all-encompassing affair that required long hours, relationship building and partying. He was on the ground as they were trying hard to monetize facebook. There were plenty of mistakes made, but luck ended up interceding. He managed to cash his options at the worst time and somehow ended up at Twitter.

On advertising, he has some interesting insights on privacy. People are concerned about companies knowing their "dirty little secrets". However, these tend to be of minimal value to advertisers. What the companies carry most about is the general persona that will spend money. There is still a long ways to go before internet advertising reaches its full potential.

For start-up cultures, he recognizes that there are people with a lot of money and little time, partnering with people with little money and a lot of time. If all goes well, everyone will get rich. However, often things don't go well. There are many start ups that burn through a lot of money and go nowhere. There are a few that do well.

The author mentions multiple times that the focus is on the overall big picture. He claims the "book persona" is different from his actual persona. Perhaps Apple could just not get that. Or perhaps they finally got cold feet after seeing all the bridges that the author did burn.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

The John Updike Audio Collection

The short stories of John Updike were taken from some of his earlier works. There seems to be a regular theme of middle-age adults being bored with their likes and seeking something. Often an affair, a reminiscing of the past or perhaps being upset with the youth of the day. The only one that stuck for me was one about a swimming pool. A family put in a pool. They enjoyed it a lot at first. However, they seemed to use it less as their marriage fell apart. They both moved to separate places, yet kept the house and made sure the pool stayed in order. At first a few neighbor kids snuck in. Then out of obligation, the neighbors joined in. Eventually it became a large community meeting place. Alas, the husband noticed this when he came to visit the house. They eventually sold the house, with the new owners filling in the pool to keep the house safe from their children. The "bad" circumstances ended up being great for the community. However, the individual priorities end up kabashing the community good. It is an interesting take on community property.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Family Trust

Family Trust seemed so familiar, yet so different. Taiwanese families in Silicon Valley have their unique culture. This is very well portrayed and familiar in the book. The book does take things to a soap opera extreme. I guess that is needed to make a good story. 

A family is in a messy situation. Grandpa is nearing the end of his life. He has been divorced and married to a younger "gold digger" wife. The family thinks he has a few millions and want to make sure they get their share. Meanwhile, other marriages are breaking apart with affairs. Work is unfulfilling. Many of the family members have well paid jobs, but feel like they have not managed to come close to the fortune that they were expecting. 

The characters are well developed. Just when you are ready to toss out one as pure evil, you get their side of the story. Suddenly, you discover that they have good motives and are in fact protecting people from others. The portrayal of the South Bay is spot on. There is a lot of money sloshing around. It often ends up with those that are lucky (or corrupt) rather than those that most deserve it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

From Cradle to Stage: Stories from the Mothers Who Rocked and Raised Rock Stars

Virginia Grohl is the mother of Foo Fighters frontman (and Nirvana drummer) Dave Grohl. She has spent time on the road with her son and attended various functions with him. In this book she explored her experiences as the "mother of a musician." Intertwined with her experiences are the stories of other musician Moms. These present the family history, detailing the environment that the grandmother grew up in as well as the youth of the musician. There were many broken homes of rock musicians. There were also parents that were supportive of their children - even when they went on different paths. The musicians include various genres from rock to country, with vocalists and instrumentalists. Some parents were heavily involved with their child's career. Others were disappointed with the musical choice, but grew to accept it. (There were also many that were approached that preferred not to participate.) 

The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket

The Secret Life of Groceries explores many parts of the grocery system that we seldom think about. Early on, the book details the "enlargement" of the grocery store. At first, there were general stores. Purchases were typically made on credit and the workers served everything to you. Most everyone was purchased from a bulk commodity. Advances in packaging led to the creation of national brands. The self-serve supermarket rose from that and has since grown to enormous proportions. Convenience store provided a smaller neighborhood alternative with greater opening hours.

Large supermarkets worked best with homogenous national products that can be consistently provided. The margins are razor thin. Often the money is made at the expense of the producer. Companies pay to slot their products on shelves and pay for advertising and promotions. Employees tend to be expendable resources.

Some retailers saw inefficiencies in the process. The found of Trader Joe's initially ran drugstores where he focussed on selling product that made the most money per shelf space occupied. He would also look for inefficiencies in the market. Extra Large eggs could be cheaper than large, because they are more rare. The short term supply could be a plus. Trader Joe's targeted over-educated, underpaid customers. He also paid the employees very well. Rather than carrying a large selection of everything, he opted for a smaller selection of high value items and affordable price points. He developed a cult following. 

In Germany, Aldi also had a "small is better" approach. They were even smaller and a very narrow selection of very cheap merchandise. Like Trader Joe's they also preferred to use private label goods rather than national brands. Eventually, Trader Joe's was sold to one of the Aldi owners.

The book also goes through the full life cycle of food. Trucking is heavily involved. It is also a very challenging profession. Many "owner operators" struggle just to make ends meet. 

Production is also filled with labor and ecosystem abuses. Cheap food and cheap labor often go together. In response to concerns, companies often engage in supply chain audits. However, there are extensive differences in the various aspects of food production that it would be impossible for an auditor to understand everything. It is also difficult to see all the various parts of the system. The auditing can make us feel good, without significantly impacting the bad players.

Launching a new grocery product requires a lot of time, money and expense, as well as a good amount of luck. People expect cheap today. Grocery stores view everything as a "product" that needs to be sold to earn money. The actual "product" is not so important.

The author went to great details to understand the food system. He interviewed key players and found jobs to better understand how parts worked. There is clearly a tone of disgust with the many sordid parts of our cheap food. He tries to be somewhat objective, though the negativity does shine through.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor

Brian Keating uses his experience to criticize the current impact of the Nobel Prize and propose solutions. The Nobel Prize encourages scientists to go out on their own, horde information and focus on being the first with "popular" science in the order to reach acclaim. Alas, this runs contrary to the interests of science. It also appears to run contrary to Nobel's original intentions. Instead, it would be better if the prize were conferred on the group of researchers rather than limit it to three individuals. There is also an unofficial "rotation" among the different fields of physics.

The bulk of the book is spent covering his research and experience and how it is colored by the current Nobel prize structure. In a rush to be recognized, a press conference was launched before outside review. His team also had to resort to inferring data from slides because an opposing team was not willing to share. He found his name removed from the top of some research studies, likely in hopes that others could get primary recognition. There was also a rush to "confirm" beliefs rather than let the data speak for itself. Personally, he also had to rush back from crucial research in Antarctica to the death bed of his dying biological father, possibly impearling his quest for a Nobel. In the end, the Nobel-seaking research ended up being a false positive obscured by cosmic dust. They missed their chance. 

There is a little bit of sour grapes in the book. However, there is a lot more introspection. He looked at what he had gone through in a quest for a Nobel and realized it was not best for him or for science. He proposed some solutions. Yet, he still acknowledges the prestige and awe of the award.

The Mystic Lighthouse: Mystery of the Missing Tiger (Mystic Lighthouse Mysteries)

A circus comes to town. Everybody is excited to see it. However, it seems somebody is out to sabotage it. The trapeze artist falls. The clown's suits are vandalized. Even the ringleader's trailer is doused in blue paint. Just when they thought things couldn't get worse, the prize new attraction, a Siberian tiger disappears. Kids use their sleuthing skills to try to figure out who did it. Is it the animal-rights activist teacher? Maybe the ringleader angling for insurance? Or perhaps the mysterious rich guy in town? There are plausible cases for them and others. At the end, they create fact sheets and leave it to us to guess before finishing up the story. The story is fairly superficial with plenty of twists. It makes for a good elementary school page turner.

Sunday, June 13, 2021


Myth-Chief is a fantasy, detective, comedy work that is deep in a series of books. Perhaps if I started earlier in the series I might have found this more intriguing. Instead I had trouble following what was going on and why I should care about it. Some detectives were having a contest to solve a case and be leaders. They did stuff but cared too much about themselves, so another person became the leader. They seemed to have solved the case and have some funny things happen on the way.

The Truth Machine: The Blockchain and the Future of Everything

Blockchain and cryptocurrencies are all the rage. The blockchain provides a decentralized record that provides a means of "trust" of transactions. It is near impossible to forge the existing record, making it impossible to forge past transactions. It is impossible to change the existing change. The chain is also replicated in many locations, eliminating the need for a central source of truth. (However, people still need to trust the communication with the blockchain and the other side of the "exchange"

Could crypto currency replace the money system as we know it? Perhaps bitcoin is the future of currency. Or maybe it will be a different currency or something different. Bitcoin has a security system that has managed to endure without being "cracked". The speed that transactions can be performed is a limiting factor. It also depends on the trust of various miners. What if some group controlled the majority of the ledgers and started doing their own thing?

The book explores a number of potential uses of blockchain. A lot of it involves taking over the position of "trust" from the government. Switching trust to a new party can be a big challenge. This is especially so in areas that could most use it. A blockchain would be great for property. It could provide a clear chain of proof of ownership of real property. This would eliminate much of the need to title insurance and the like. However, establishing the initial ownership could be a challenge, especially in areas where records are not good. Would we accidently entrench scoundrels?

Blockchain does seem like a technology with a lot of potential. However, there are significant scalability issues. Can these be resolved to allow for a full system of distributed trust? Or will there continue to be a central trusted authority involved?

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero

Superman has been one of the most enduring superheroes. He was created by two Jewish boys in Cleveland. They lived in difficult circumstances and were somewhat socially outcast. They worked hard to get their comic published somewhere. Eventually it was published and went on to be extremely successful. Superman spawned radio shows, movies, TV shows and many other tie ins. Over the years, superman gained new talents. (The original Superman did not fly.) Superman was observant of current events, but stayed somewhat aloof from direct involvement. While other superheroes would fight Nazis, Superman tried to enlist put ended up failing due to an X-Ray vision issue. This allowed him to support the troops at home without being directly involved.

The original creators felt that they never got their fair share from the revenues of Superman. I don't have a lot of support for their constant quest for more. They were paid handsomely, and were able to live a good life with the money they earned. They further received an annuity for the remainder for their life. While they did "create" Superman, many of his characters were borrowed from others of the day. Superman also evolved with a great deal of creative work from other people. It seems that our current system gives too much credit for certain "key" activities. Do they really deserve the outsize gains? The strength of the Superman brand also owes a debt to lawsuits against other similar comics. The creators borrowed from other "strong man" comics of the day, yet the attorneys shut down future comics like the old "Capitian Marvel" that look a lot like Superman.

Superman has remained popular, though not always invincible. There have been "Superflops" of movies. The broadway musical was reported to make back its money, but did not last long. There have been run-ins with parents who feel comic books kill brain cells and encourage kids to perform dangerous acts. There is also the "curse" of Superman, with one Superman actor dying of suicide and another being paralyzed in a horse accident.  Yet Superman lives on. National media extensively covered his "death" in comic books. (Of course, he came back alive later.) There have been a number of "spin off" television shows that focus more on "Clark Kent" than Superman. He has evolved to reach new generations of fans, yet still remains "super".

Rabbit, Run

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom was the star of his high school basketball team. Now he is in a marriage he does not like. His pregnant wife finally pushes him over the edge with her vices. He decides to leave. However, he has trouble carrying it out. He is self conscious in his drive away. So, he goes to some place of comfort - his basketball coach's house. He ends up spending time with a woman of questionable character, but makes it back to see his wife and return the car. He continues to have some conflicts with his desires and the poor state of his life. A minister takes him under his wing to try to help. (The minister is very "human" with his own family squabbles.) Eventually, he returns home to his wife as the child is born. However, the child drowns in a tub and he is more concerned with his lack of guilt. Though he is an adult, Rabbit has trouble taking on responsibility with the vagaries of life. There are many people that want to help him. He is somewhat willing to accept the help, but still struggles with his own personal decisions. 

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

The Aztecs are intriguing. This book has potential. However, it gets bogged down by details. In the audiobook, the native words are pronounced and then spelled out. This just seems to slow down the narrative. There is also too much time spent explaining the details instead of providing a narrative. The book attempts to be "popular", yet gets a little too stuck in academic detail.

The history also makes few attempts to go very far back in time. The focus is on the history that can be easily documented. Thus, it does not go very far back before the Spanish encounter. A great deal of the book focuses on the interactions with the Spaniards. There is an attempt to get at the "true" history, as opposed to what are likely many false impressions between the two societies that did not understand each other. There is also the challenging of teasing out the truth from narratives that were made to advance particular positions.

There is some coverage of the human sacrifice and heart extraction. The view in this book is that it was a fairly complex issue. Some of those sacrificed were essentially given a death penalty due to infractions (or being an enemy.) Later is became ritualistic and their became a demand for people to sacrifice to ensure positive outcomes (such as victory in war.) 

The Aztecs were of the Nahua culture and had a complicated relationship with the other people around. There were shufflings of leadership and migrations of peoples to the city. There was also plenty of intermarriage with plenty of love and hate to go around. The Spanish were able to find allies in their conquest. They also had the benefit of advanced technology and germs without immunity.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

Email encourages originally started out as a means for users of a multi-user mainframe to be able communicate with each other. Since then, it has grown to become ubiquitous in business. Email has helped make some forms of communication easier. However, it has also created numerous problems. It is easy to write a short email that demands significant effort for response. The availability of email also encourages responses at all hours. The rapid asynchronous communication has become an integral part in the "interactive hive mind" culture. Alas, this culture is an inefficient use of time by knowledge workers.

Email is the titular focus of the book. However, it is a stand in for all forms of general electronic communications, including tools like Slack. They all enable us to communicate with others in an always available fashion. This ends up disrupting our work process. Knowledge workers end up spending a great deal of time dealing with urgent non-important tasks, and little time on their core work.

The author provides a buffet of alternatives, with different ones applicable to specific situations. The goal is to allow people to focus on the tasks that they do best. Technology has enabled people to "acceptably" do almost anything. However, that does not mean it is the best use of their time. Hiring somebody to manage a calendar and schedule meeting can save a large amount of time. Many other tasks, such as booking travel or creating powerpoints may be more effectively outsourced to specialists. Setting limits on accessibility can also help. Experts may have only specific "office hours" when they are available to answer questions. Setting expectations of responsiveness in advance helps to eliminate the expectation of quick response and allow people to focus. Software development concepts such as Agile development with Scrum and Kanban or "Extreme Programming" can also be applied more generally. Working "harder" and "shorter" is often much more productive than working "longer."

A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1

A Game of Thrones is a long epic fantasy novel. A bunch of people are fighting each other to rule. There is a ton of sex and violence. There is also a little magic. At the end, somebody gets some special something by being burned alive. It has been made into a popular HBO series. I did not like it at all and had trouble focussing on it.