Category Archives: Reviews

Some Long Overdue Book Reviews

More Money Than God Cover
"More Money Than God," Mallaby

More Money Than God, Sebastian Mallaby

Excellent. Far too many general audience finance books are written at what I think of as a newspaper reading level. (Defining even the most basic terms, assuming the reader is intimidated by any math as complicated as calculating a percentage, feeling the need to frame everything in a protagonist/antagonist arrangement, etc.) This is way, way better than that. There's an appropriate mix of the human element in there. The more factual stuff is covered well without needing resorting to lots of technicalities. (I have other books for that.)

It's hard to draw large conclusions from this book. One that comes to mind is that hedge funds seem to fail (either catastrophically, or in the more prosaic sense of failing to deliver the expected alpha) when they stop being hedge funds, where "hedge" is the operative word.

This book also made me start thinking more about the connection between financial risk and ecological monoculture. Trading strategies seem to have a discrete lifespan. Traders seem to underestimate how their strategies will be affected by being in a crowded field of other people with the same strategy. LTCM is a good example. Their system worked very well for a while and then crashed and burned. Is it that the system was actually bad all along, or was it great when they were the only ones doing it, and terrible when everyone else in the market was copying them and putting on the same trades? I don't think you can judge a strategy in isolation; you need to consider it's utility in both crowded and sparse niches.


PanicCover
"Panic," Lewis

Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, Michael Lewis

Very well curated. File under: "nihil sub sole novum," "the more things change," etc.

I think the only piece I would have left out, IIRC, was the Paul Krugman one. But that has more to do with being utterly exhausted at trying to reconcile vintage 1990s Krugman-the-Scholar with late model Krugman-the-Demogogue.


Saga #5
Saga #5

Saga, Volume Two, Brian K Vaughn + Fiona Staples

Saga is still absolutely brilliant. The story and art are both outstanding. Comics needs more Space Opera. The genre cries out for a visual medium, but the budget required to do something like this in film would be off the charts. Only James Cameron gets the opportunity to try something like that. (Although after Pacific Rim maybe del Toro will get the chance too. Or perhaps Neill Blomkamp if Elysium rakes in enough. Sign me up for some widescreen baroque space opera directed by either of them.)


HackersPaintersCover
"Hackers and Painters,"
Graham

Hackers and Painters, Paul Graham

I read most of these essays back in undergrad but it's great to revisit them. It's interesting how the things that have stuck in my mind aren't the major theses of the essays, but little asides and trivialities. Every CS student and programmer should read this. I think it would also make a good read for the family members, managers, etc. of those people too: anyone who wants to understand how we think and see would benefit. Even when I read Graham discussing completely non-technical subjects (e.g. adolescents and popularity) there's something in his method of analysis which resonates with me as distinctly hackerish. On the flip side, it's nice to have someone else in the computing community who is interested in Art. I would need a whole Paul Graham-level essay to unpack this, but I think there's an unfortunate degree of antagonism between the geek and art tribes.


Unseen Academicals, Terry Pratchett

This is one of my favorite Discworld books so far. I didn't realize going in that the focus of Pratchett's satire here is not just academia but also soccer/football culture.


The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

Too superstitious and mystical, but I think there are a lot of overlaps between the way scientists (and especially doctoral students) work and the way writers and artists work. Learning about how various writers (e.g. Neal Stephenson, DFW) work has helped me to be a better researcher.


A Red Mass for Mars, Jonathan Hickman + Ryan Bodenheim

A little hard to follow the plot, but absolutely gorgeous. Hickman consistently turns out books that are so visually different from most comics. Here there's a great contrast, similar to what he did in Pax Romana, between the stark black inking and the luminous aquarelle of the backgrounds.
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Some recent, brief book reviews

Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Philip Pullman

brothers_grimm_pullman_cover
"Fairy Takes from the Brothers Grimm," Pullman

I knew these were darker than Disney (and everyone else in the 20th C.) would have children believe, but wow. I think there was a stretch of seven stories in a row in which at least one person was casually executed. Cinderella's avian helpers not only dress her up nice and pretty before the soirees, they peck out her step-sisters' eyes! For the sake of professionalism I won't discuss what wakes up Briar Rose or turns the Frog Prince into a man, but let's just say they're a bit more intimate than the chaste smooches that are typically depicted.

Pullman does a first-rate job editing, especially since the various versions the Grimms published are a self-contradicting mess. He's managed to whip some of the stories into shape without losing their pre-modern, fever-dream, nonsensical character. He includes a brief analysis at the end of each story which I would have liked to have even more of. There are also lists of similar stories from other cultures, which given a large windfall of time I would like to track down. Pullman deserves credit for really editing this, not "editing" it in the way that David Foster Wallace discusses editing the Best American Essays 2007. (See his forward, Deciderization 2007: A Special Report, [fulltext pdf] included in his posthumous 2012 collection Both Flesh and Not.


Our Tragic Universe, Scarlett Thomas

Very disappointing. I previously read Thomas' PopCo, which I loved, and whose cleverness and vitality only further overshadows OTU. I'll save you a lot of trouble: the main character of OTU is a struggling author who is debating writing a novel in which nothing happens — a "story-less story." OTU is, eo ipso, a novel in which nothing happens. The end.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

Would have been twice as good if it was half as long. ("Don't worry about getting to your point; I am going to live forever.")

"Don't worry about getting to yoru points; I am going to live forever."

The conceit of using citations to reference works as similes was clever, especially since the narrator was an over-acheiving college freshman, but it wore out quickly.


Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf

"Proust and the Squid," Wolf
"Proust and the Squid," Wolf

Wolf did a sterling job balancing the history, neurobiology and pedagogy of reading and writing. I was (am?) dyslexic, so this was of special autobiographical interest to me. If I am reading her correctly, my difficulty learning to read when young, my continued ineptitude at foreign language and music, and my visuospatial and pattern recognition interests and skills are actually all rooted in the same cause and not independent as I had casually assumed.

Wolf has also informally tracked which sub-careers dyslexics end up in. Dyslexic doctors are more likely to be great radiologists, for instance, since it requires more visuospatial cognition. I was fascinated to learn that dyslexics in business gravitate to finance, and those in computing towards AI/ML/Pattern Recognition and Graphics/Vision. Those interests fit me perfectly. Score one for being neuro-atypical, I guess.


The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

It would be a ton of fun to do visual effects for a film adaptation of this. The illusions are brilliantly described. Actually all of the visual imagery is very well done. These characters would make good fodder for 15-minute sketch exercises like Chris Schweiser used to post.


"Some Remarks," Stephenson
"Some Remarks," Stephenson

Some Remarks, Neal Stephenson

Be advised the pluarilty of this is a single essay from the mid 90s about laying undersea fiberoptic cable. Stephenson manages to make that more interesting than I would have thought possible, but I picked this up looking forward to multiple, bite-sized essays so a single 125 page piece was tough to swallow.

(Side note: a recent BusinessWeek had a map of current undersea cables, and FLAG, which is the focus of Stephenson's essay and was bleeding edge in 1996, dwarfing previous cables' capacity by magnitudes, was just barely big enough to even make it onto the map 17 years later.)

It was also a little odd reading all these interviews and essays which revolve around the progression of Stephenson's career and how it relates to his "Baroque Cycle" since he's published three novels between that and Some Remarks and all of them are very different. The commentary has been left behind by events. It feels like picking up a book written in 1985 that's full of interviews with Reagan about transitioning from actor to SAG president to GE-backed orator but completely ignores his becoming governor and then president.


The Art Forger, B.A. Shapiro

Not my usual kind of book, but still a lot of fun. It was a nice coincidence that I started reading this right as I began watercolor classes. You can tell Shapiro has a real passion for art; various passages really got me fired up to work on my own stuff (both digital and aqueous). She does a good job describing the artistic process in terms of both physical and internal manifestations.


"Stardust," Gaiman
"Stardust," Gaiman

Stardust, Neil Gaiman

Gaiman described this as "a fairy tale for adults," which is extremely apt. It diverges pretty significantly from the film version. Unsurprisingly I like the book version better, but this is one of those rare times when I don't find the movie to be drastically inferior.

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"Traffic," Tom Vanderbilt

This is a good compendium. Nothing too ground-breaking here, but Vanderbilt does cover a lot of ground.

I especially liked that Vanderbilt addressed self-driving cars. Traffic was published in 2009; I didn't expect then that producers would have made as much progress towards autonomous vehicles as they have in the last four years. I am more optimistic about overcoming regulatory hurdles than I was then, but I still believe those will be bigger obstacles than any technological difficulties.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt

I find any serious discussion of congestion, mass transit, electric vehicles, hybrids, land use, urban planning, fuel usage, carbon emissions, etc. pretty pointless if it doesn't consider the transformative effects of autonomous vehicles. Planning a new highway or commuter rail line that's supposed to be useful for the next fifty years without considering robo-cars feels like some 1897 Jules Verne-esque proto-steampunk fantasy that predicts the next century will look just like the last one except it will have more telegraphs and longer steam trains. You might as well be sitting around in a top hat and frock coat micromanaging where you'll be putting all the stables and coal bunkers for the next five generations, oblivious to Messrs Benz, Daimler, Peugeot et al. motoring around on your lawn.

I think you can wrap most of the problems of traffic congestion up into several short, unimpeachable statements:

  1. Costs can take the form of both money and time.
  2. Lowering the cost of something means people will do more of it, ceteris paribus.
  3. Reducing traffic congestion reduces the time-cost of driving.
  4. The reduced cost of driving causes people to want to drive more, raising traffic congestion again.

Unless someone can show me one of those four statements is incorrect, I'm comfortable concluding that traffic is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Plenty people think they have the cure for congestion: roundabouts, light rail, "livable communities," bike sharing, HOV lanes, high-density residences, abolishing free parking, mileage fees, congestion fees, etc. Some of these are good ideas, and some aren't. But I'm not taking anyone who claims to solve (or even alleviate) the traffic problem seriously unless they can address how their solution interacts with #1-4 above.

For some of the proposals the resolution is simple: they lower the time-cost but explicitly raise the monetary cost (e.g. congestion pricing, market-based rates for parking). Others don't have such an easy time of it. But either way, I'd like people to at least be able to address how they would break out of this feedback loop.


PS I once sat through an hour-long keynote by an eminent professor from MIT Sloan on modeling market penetration of alternative fuel vehicles. Half of his talk ended up being about gas shortages, both in the 1970s and after Hurricane Sandy. At no point in those thirty minutes did he once mention the word "price"! Everything I had heard about the distinction between freshwater and saltwater economics snapped into focus.

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"Ragnarok: The End of the Gods," A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods

This is part of the Canongate Myth Series, which has contemporary authors re-telling ancient myths.

I soaked up all the Greco-Roman mythology I could get as a kid. My parents cleverly gave me a gift-wrapped copy of D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths right before boarding a flight to Florida. That was an extremely effective way to keep an eight year old Jared quiet for three hours.

Despite an interest I've never immersed myself in other cultures' myths to the same degree. Having them actually presented as fiction like Byatt does here worked better than attempting to read about it as non-fiction. Previous non-fiction sources I've tried are either superficial or fractally labyrinthine. I think the framing story Byatt chose was a little superfluous though it does get points for lyricism.

Harriet Walter's narration in the audiobook version I listened to was quite good. There were several passages of extended lists of beasts and plants and such that worked much better narrated than it would have in print. What would have been skimmed over in print had a hypnotic quality when spoken. (See lyricism remark supra.)

As a whole it was certainly good enough for me to pick up other books in the series.

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