Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Age of Innocence

The well to do in New York run together in narrow social circles. Marriage is important. A lawyer works with people that they know. In this background, some people are getting engaged. However, another woman appears that appears more willing to go against the norms. There is also work on divorce. Feels like a Jane Austen book, set in New York in the early 1900s.

The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate

Geography is not destiny, but it is a very strong influence. Location and natural borders have played a large role in the destiny of empires and the shape of the world today. Iran/Persia has had a very logical border on the Iranian plateau. It has been one of the longest lived civilizations. Egypt had an easily navigable river base and was protected on other sides. This facilitated a stable empire. Mesopotamia was not so well protected and was the site of regular churn. Europe is fairly dense with a huge amount of coastline and that has contributed to their maritime prowess. 

While some borders are natural, others are artificial. Most of the borders in Africa were arbitrarily drawn. The northern and southern borders of the United States are also fairly arbitrary. Northern Mexico is fairly well separated from southern Mexico, but very connected to the US. Some argue that the border region could choose to form its own country. The residents are different from other immigrants in that they can argue that they once occupied this area. 

India also has overlapping culture and borders. Pakistan and Bangladesh have both been part of India, but have been separated. Other countries, like Nepal and Afghanistan have also historically been part of the India sphere of influence. 

Geography has allowed growth and knowledge dissemination to take place in various regions. Eurasia is oriented east-west, with similar climate zones stretched over long ranges. This allows similar agricultural technologies to spread over fast ranges. South America and Africa are north-south oriented, and thus have much more limited climate bands. Africa also has areas such as the Sahara that further block connections.

The book has an interesting story of the influence of geography and politics. I was hoping for a broader argument, but the narrow approach did have some good points.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life

Edith Eva Eger grew up as a Jew in Hungary. As a teenager, she was hauled to a concentration camp and required to dance for a Nazi leader. Her parents were killed, but she lived to be liberated. She later moved to the United States and eventually received a PhD in clinical psychology. In the concentration camp she saw people die because they lost hope. There were many things outside of individual control. An appropriate focus allowed one to keep living, but it was not easy.

She spent years suffering from various types of guilt. One of the points of the book is that guilt is not helpful. There may have been things that could have been done to prevent somebody else's death. However, dwelling over them will not bring them back. It is important to not get brought down by the "might have beens". It is also not useful to hope for a big change that will resolve things. The change will happen inside. Once the internal change happens, the external can them resolve itself. A divorce is just a legal apparatus. It won't help somebody in a bad relationship unless the people really want to change. Conflict is normal. However, it must be dealt with appropriately. Looking to achieve happiness by having other people change is a recipe for failure.

The book has many good bits of advice colored with powerful anecdotes.

A Clockwork Orange

While reading A Clockwork Orange, some terms like "ultraviolence" sounded familiar. After reading it, I discovered I had read it a decade ago. I didn't remember many of the plot details from then. And even when reading it now, much of the details escaped me. A quick summary: a teenager and his friends dress fashionably, love music and commit heinous crimes. The government tries to reform him through some treatment. He is repulsed by crime. However, he is still subjected to it. People don't believe he is reformed. He tries to commit suicide. He fails. However, he does significantly injure himself. He is "cured" and now has the ability to commit acts of violence. He tries to go hang out with the old gang. However, he realizes that he just doesn't like it as much anymore. He has "grown up" and longs for a more peaceful life.

In the intro, Burgess complains that he is upset with the novel. It is by far his most famous, yet it was written quickly and does not represent his writing. The final chapter was removed from the US edition, violating the symmetry and changing the outcome. (Without the last chapter, the narrator is just an unchanged criminal.) However, Burgess appeared resigned to this. The audiobook concluded with him reading the first chapters.

Burgess was a linguist and the book shows it. Much of the novel consists of a made-up slang. Many of the words are repeated enough to enable understanding the meaning without a glossary. This helps the depravity seem a little more distant while giving the novel some otherworldliness. The narrator also has a strong attachment to classical music. (Burgess was an accomplished musician.) The classical music is strongly linked to violence in the book. The narrator suffers when he hears music while "controlled". He is relieved afterwards to finally be able to appreciate the classics. It is an interesting combination of art and violence. The result of the mind control remains ambiguous. The narrator really did change on his own afterward. Did he need to have change forced upon him first? Or would he have changed on his own?

Monday, October 25, 2021

Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World

Humble Pi is a fun book about math gone bad. Or perhaps smore accurately, it is about humans' poor understanding of numbers. There are big disasters and little flubs described. Bridges collapsed because minor changes greatly increased loads. McDonald's went to court because they seemingly exaggerated the number of meal combinations. Other companies understated the number of combinations. People have been given lethal doses of medications due to misunderstandings of the unit of measurements. The Gimli Glider was a 767 airplane that ran out of fuel midflight. Luckily, the pilot was able to glide it down to a landing. A number of things together created the issue. However, a key issue was the use of wrong units for fuel calculations.

People can sometimes have very bad logic when confronted with big numbers. One meme mistakenly assumed dividing a large number in the millions by another in the millions would have an answer in the millions. There have been internet flame wars over whether a week has 7 or 8 days. (Having something 0-based or 1-based does make a big difference.) 

The intersection of computers and people also create all sorts of problems. In one hilarious case, the upgrade of a an operating system (and downgrade of mail software) resulted in emails only being able to reach recipients within 500 miles. (Thank you speed of light!) Strange results often appear due to the binary representation of numbers. Results that exceed the maximum capacity can be very unpredictable. (When the 8-bit level number in pac-man rolled over, things went bezerk.) However, a similar overrun has also lead to a rocket to crash. (Legacy code also contributed to this. The part that caused the self-destruct did not even need to be run at the time.)

People's inability to behave like "math" can also help finding frauds. A professor can distinguish between those that really did record a large number of coin flips and those that made things up. Those that really did it are more likely to have some longer "runs" than a faker would appear. Forensic accounting can also be used to identify fraud due to bad distributions of numbers, indicating more likely "fakes".

What do we learn from all this? People can make bad mistakes with numbers. However, there are also many cases of bad number usage that we are still living with. There are also plenty of others that have been identified by the perpetrators, but have been "swept under the rug" as trade secrets.

Sunday, October 24, 2021


Middlemarch is the name of a fictional English town. Things happened there. Railroads were still a new fangled thing. Dorothea did things. The book is long, but not my cup of tea.

Thursday, October 21, 2021


Anthem is a lot like Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, only much shorter and more extreme. (It even has soliloquy advocating Rand's philosophy, but keeps it short.) The story is set in a communist dystopia. There is now "I". Everything is done for the collective good. People with above average intelligence are brought down. Mating is an organized process done through the eugenics board. Careers are picked by the organization. There is little freedom.

The protagonist discovers some relics from the past. He eventually discovers electric light. He believes all scholars will be grateful when he presents it. Instead, they are frightened and seek to punish him. How dare he step out of line. He eventually hooks up with a woman that he noticed and they decide that they will not let the world take their minds.

The story is reminiscent of Brave New World.  It presents the exaggerated view of what a collectivist society could be like. Equality created by bringing down all the high achievers leads to mediocrity.

The Magus

The Eagles "Hotel California" was loosely based on The Magus. The novel is fairly long, but the BBC dramatization keeps it manageable. The protagonist has knack for "using" people in relationships. He ends up involved in some elaborate psychological experience where people manipulate him and control his experience. The relationship with a woman takes some weird turns and a mysterious man seems to be heavily involved. 

The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses

The world has often been on the cusp of collapse. There have been various "dark ages" that have lost some of the technological advancements of the past. Sometimes, this was due to changes in climate that cultures were slow to adopt to. Other times there were human-induced challenges can cause problems. More recently, there were some instances during the cold war that the world came very close to nuclear war. The end of civilization will always be close. However, the world has continued to move on.

Why the West Rules - for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future

What is the west? And why does it dominate now? There are a number of different theories. Some say it is pure luck. Others say the geography or cultural institutions were critical. Ian Morris tries to respect all theories and provide a comprehensive analysis. He goes back as far as we can go historically to look at development and formation of societies. Different areas have dominated at times in history. Empires have grown and fallen, often by overextending or failing to respect non-standard rivals. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential (Civil Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives)

The biggest takeaway from Uncharitable is that accountants make us do stupid things. Ok. There is more than that, but accounting mechanisms do seem to play an outsized role in what is good or bad with charities. Dan Pallotta had a successful company that organized major "active" charitable events, such as AIDS bicycle rides, and multi-day breast cancer walks. Then there was backlash and his company lost his contracts and went belly up. Some of his former employees went on to work directly for the charities to put on events. So, yeah. He has an axe to grind. The charities thought they would get more money by doing it on their own. Alas, they netted much less when they tried. Eventually they did ramp up to similar levels. Would they have been even higher if they kept with him?

The book rambles on for a long time about the Puritan ethic and the history of the separation of for-profit and non-profit distinction. 

The primary argument is that charities need to operate more like business. They should hire the best and compensate them appropriately. They should be willing to look to the long term. They should take risks and be willing to fail. Judging a charity merely on the percentage of funds that "go to the cause" encourages short-term behavior and creative accounting. It also penalizes smaller charities. He does give examples of some of the nonsense this behavior encourages. Having a company donate goods or services rather than donate money makes things look better, but is really just an accounting sleight of hand. 

There is some interesting discussion on advertising. Church goers tend to donate more to secular causes because they hear weekly propaganda on the benefits of charity. Similarly, charities receive large donations after a major catastrophe because of all the "free publicity" of the news. Corporations also spend money to advertise their products. Why shouldn't charities also advertise more? Aren't they providing a better service?

There are a number of good points in the book. There is also an underlying hurt that he felt from his past experiences. A lot of it boils down to what we think of a charity. The government provides favorable tax treatment and in return makes rules. We tend to follow through. While a charity does not need to be a non-profit organization, it is harder to convince people to donate. Higher education is its own separate beast. For profit colleges have been piloried and discredited. Yet colleges have been free to pay coaches millions of dollars - amounts that would not be tolerated at other non-profits. Would it be a problem if coach compensation were limited? Probably not. On the other hand, do we need to pay non-profit executives huge amounts? We could argue that for-profit executive compensation has become excessive. A more moderate non-profit salary could allow somebody to live comfortable at the 95% of income, and still earn a small fraction of a for-profit executive. No need to repeat the mistakes of the private sector. Would it be better to let the private sector executives make the big bucks and donate them to charity?

Other handcuffs of charities do need to be looked into. We should let charities focus more on innovation and long term development. It seems silly to require all donations received after a big event to be dedicated to that event. (Would this just encourage more creative accounting? Much of the work responding to the event was started before the donations flowed - using previous donations.) The difficulty remains in evaluating quality of charitable programs. Numbers are easy. 

Monday, October 11, 2021


Circe seemed like an interesting fantasy concept, retelling stories of Greek mythology from the view of Circe. I recognized Odysseus and some of other characters from Greek mythology. There was also an interesting part about a demi-god struggling with the birth of a human child. Maybe humans are not as wimpy as was thought? There seemed like some potential in the book, but it just did not click for me. Fantasy tends to be a hard sell for my brain.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots

War! What is it Good For. Absolutely something. Ian Morris postulate that war is good for a whole lot. Productive war helps to reduce violence in society. Instead of individual violence, war helps focus efforts and makes the world less dangerous. As armies get greater power, there is a reluctance to use the power, thus a greater peace. The odds of dying a violent death have been steadily decreasing over time, even if you include the odds of dying in war. Having a global superpower helps to reduce the odds of smaller scale skirmishes. The US is a super power now. The author believes technology will be the new global cop. But will the US reign of power last until then?

There is also an interesting comparisons of are ape relatives. Some are very violent. Others are not. Is there a violence gene? Is the feminization of society leading towards more peace. A lot of interesting questions. Is there an answer?

Saturday, October 02, 2021

The Soviet Novel, Third Edition: History as Ritual

The novel had a special place within Soviet culture. It was an important means of entertainment as well as indoctrination. The authors also had to walk a fine line of properly appealing to the sensibilities of the current leadership. From Lenin to Stalin to Khrushchev, the leader in power caused different interpretations and sensibilities to become more important. The novels would stress the current sensibilities, sometimes acknowledging the faults of the past. There was still some space for independence and subterfuge, yet most novels adhered to a standard formula. Gorky's Mother seemed to be mentioned over in over. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, the novel's importance waned in independent Russia.

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge

Atheist Evolutionary Predestined Libertarianism. That pretty much sums up the Ridley's principles. He is advocating the opposite of the "great man" view of history. Everything was destined to happen. Some people may slow progress through their interventions, but can do little to help things along. The best course of action is for government and culture to get out of the way and let things happen. 

Areas that have the most government involvement (such as education and healthcare) tend to stagnate, with cost going up without significant innovation. The background on education is quite interesting. Private education was taking off in a big way in the United States. However, people saw what was going on in Prussia and decided that would be a good model. (The Prussians were upset about the condition of their troops, so they wanted to train them to be high quality conformists ready to fight.) This manner of education continues to serve as our basic model. When asking for funding, the education establishment will bring about the need to teach people basic skills. However, that could be carried out much more effectively for a small fraction of the cost. What public education really provides is indoctrination. The goal is for students to have the appropriate beliefs that the current establishment desires. The education institutions also have a vested interest in protecting their jobs and continue their rent seeking behavior. Instead of keeping the ossified structure in place, we should let it continue to evolve to better provide for students. (Even formal private education is often over-regulated today.)

There are often many bad policies put in place as the elite tries to "help" others like the poor. They assume that they know what other people need and want, so they mandate it, rather than let things evolve. Zoning regulations were put in place to separate living conditions from jobs. Parking requirements, floor area ratios and other regulations were put in place to provide ideal living conditions. Isn't it ironic, they people still flock to live in old parts of cities that did not adhere to those regulations? If we just let things evolve, some might be that way. But others would not. Government gets in the way. We try to guess how things will turn out, but really only slow things down. Children are most influences by their genes and their peers. I guess that gives parents a role in picking a location for their peers. But, most of the future will just "evolve".

Warren Buffett and the Art of Stock Arbitrage: Proven Strategies for Arbitrage and Other Special Investment Situations

Stock arbitrage involves making money from pricing differences from essentially the same thing. This book outlines some of the ways that Buffett had made money primarily by relying on differences in value over time. The goal is to minimize most of the risk, while still achieving significant upside. A lot of the items involve changes in companies. A large conglomerate my be priced as the company as a whole. If a section with a large upside is spun off, it could significantly increase in value. Buying the original company is a way to get it on the cheap. Similarly, an acquisition target can often be bought for less than the future acquisition price. A company switching to an MLP that will increase its dividend may be priced with the old dividend in mind.

These seem like fairly reasonable strategies. However, how applicable are they for a retail investor? The ideal time to pounce is when an action appears 100% certain to occur soon, yet has not been fully priced in the market. Are there many of these? Is there enough of a spread that a retail investor can profit with minimal risk? The book gives examples of Buffett's success in some of these, but there is no coverage of his failures. How valid are these today?

Friday, October 01, 2021

Just Kids

I have heard of Patti Smith as a famous alternative musician of the past, but could not identify any of her music. (When I finally did listen to her top tracks on Spotify, it was all covers that jumped out. I've heard U2 and 10,000 Maniacs cover her songs, while she had covers of Prince and Nirvana songs.) When she started talking about Robert at first, I thought it was Robert Smith, and the time he (the singer of the Doors) died. Then I realized Robert Smith is the name of the Cure singer, and Jim Morrison was the Doors singer. (He death does actually show up later in the book.) The Robert who was dying in this book was Mapplethorpe. I had heard of him before, but really only remember him as being some artist that was more famous for controversy in the 80s.

This book is Smith's story of two young trying to find themselves in the New York City of the late 60s and eventually developing their own unique art. They both spent a significant amount of time struggling financially. They met by chance as he came to buy something at a store she was working at. She happened to see him walking by as she was trying to escape a bad date with a science fiction writer. She claimed he was her boyfriend to escape. They ended up becoming romantically involved. (At one time, he told his Catholic family they had eloped.) They broke up and got back together in different fashions. He eventually honed in on his homosexuality with other boyfriends, and she had other boyfriends, yet they still remained friends. They supported each other in their art. The book focusses on the "hard times" they had together in New York city in the late 60s. There were a series of odd jobs, some horrible apartments and many challenges as the artists spent time trying to create art. The book picks up speed in the 70s and then rushes through to touch on the launching point of their fame. Smith would eventually branch out from her Poetry to become a respected musician. He would be an artists known for his controversial sexual subject matter. He would provide the photographs for some of her album covers.



Reboot follows the female-led dystopian fiction formula to a T. A virus has wiped out a good junk of humanity. Some young people "reboot" after dying. These youth are employed as "reboots" to be the security guards of humanity. The length of time that a reboot is "dead" before rebooting impacts how they are as a reboot. Higher numbers are more "in control" than lower numbers. Humans control the reboots and track their moves. 

The central character is a high number female reboot. She prides herself on her skill and her ability to follow orders. She meets a low number male reboot. She is asked to train him. They fall in love (of course.) They escape. She tries to go back to find the medicine that can help save him. (They have been running some experiments on reboots that make them extra wild.) After some close calls, they escape to their Utopia. It provides a nice conclusion while setting things up for the next book in the series.

Change a few details and this could be one of the many other dystopian works.