Category Archives: Books

On My Bookshelf: The Lies About Money

image Some months ago, my Dad loaned me The Lies About Money, the latest book by licensed financial planner and radio show host Ric Edelman, and I’ve been working my way through it.  It’s a dense book, but clearly written, in a style that I think should be approachable by even the beginning investor.  The book’s basic argument is that if you’re investing in traditional retail mutual funds, you’re very likely getting taken to the cleaners.  Quoting from the book jacket: "[R]etail mutual funds don’t follow …fundamental [time-tested, proven investment methods], using instead deceptive business practices that interfere with your investment goals." 

Along the way, he makes a pretty good argument that if you do any of the following, you’re investment approach is misguided (note I’m paraphrasing here):

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Read the originals

The British Library has made available a number of very old books available in their original format, using Turning The Page software. It’s nice to see institutions following Google’s example and making actual scans of the books available. Much more interesting with these historical books to see how the books were originally published rather than just the text.

Marginal Revolution: A Girl Named Florida

Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, who apparently wants to make your brain hurt, shares some problems from Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk:

A family has two children. What is the probability that both are girls if at least one is a girl? 

Now, what is the probability of a family having two girls if they have one girl named Florida?

“The World Without Us”

Believe it or not, I decided to read this book not because of some interest in the environmental message it contains, but from a juvenile fascination with the premise. What would happen to the world if humanity, as Alan Weisman puts it, were to be “raptured away”? He explores a variety of aspects of this question through the book.

What would happen to your house? (It would be down to the foundations inside a century.)

What would happen to your city? (The subway tunnels would collapse, the cars would rust away to nothing, and the windows would all be reduced to sand in mere decades.)

What would happen to the 441 nuclear reactors spread around the world? (441 Chernobyls… or worse.)

What would happen to the oil refinery center known as Texas City, outside of Houston? (Firestorm unlike any seen on Earth since the last giant asteroid collision.)

What would happen to bronze statues? (Not a friggin’ thing. They’ll last for millions of years, easy.)

If you’ve read my previous post, you may notice a similar theme in this next comment. While Weisman does have a fair amount to say about the negative impacts of man on the environment (look up the term “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” for a horrifying read), the overall message is optimistic. If we leave, nature will reclaim the land and readjust very quickly.

Case in point: one of the most pristine and natural areas on the planet is one that you (or, at least I) wouldn’t expect: the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. The cessation of hostilities between these two nations has left the DMZ so untouched by man that it’s a naturalists dream. And that’s in just over fifty years.

The book is fascinating, and doesn’t descend too much into preachiness. I liked it well enough.

150 Days of Fiction

I recently finished reading the “Science in the Capital” trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve already reviewed the first in the series, “Forty Days of Rain”. It was followed by “Fifty Degrees Below” and “Sixty Days and Counting”.

Unfortunately, the second and third books don’t have the same sheer oomph of the first. But they’re still remarkably well written. Robinson continues to impress me with his ability to put words on paper.

But, this series being what it is, and this blog being what it is, the political/scientific aspect of the series is really the meat of the review. The premise of the series is, in a nutshell, that global warming ticks up a notch, causing a flood in Washington, D. C., a terrifying cold snap in the Northern Hemisphere, and the beginnings of the melting of the Southern Polar Cap. But it doesn’t read like a disaster movie, like “The Day After Tomorrow”. These events occur, much like I imagine they would, by degrees, slowly piling up until, finally, the world has to respond.

In the story, everyone responds, but it is the role of the US government to collate those efforts, which actually have a nifty, just-barely-believable sci-fi quality to them. A tremendous convoy of decommissioned oil tankers dumps trillions of tons of salt into the North Atlantic to attempt to keep the critical currents there from stalling. A vaguely scary genetically engineered lichen is released into the Siberian forests, causing extraordinary draw down of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. My favorite subplot is the pumping system designed to pull water out of the ocean and spit it back up onto the Antartic plain, basically reforming the Southern Polar Cap.

This being a book written about science, from the perspective of scientists, there is a measure of humility to be seen. The salt-convoy is described as barely a pin prick in the problem, a desperate delaying action that costs billions. The lichen, on the other hand, may well be a horrible mistake, if the carbon draw down is too much. (Though, they do say that compensation is as simple as burning a few billion tires.)

All in all, there’s little propagandist about the series. Robinson isn’t saying, “The world is about to end! Listen and learn!” He’s making the assumption that the scientific community is right, and telling a story about how it all might go. His tale is one of optimism. (Just like every other book of his I’ve read, incidentally.)

I guess the reason I like Robinson’s work so much is that he’s a writer that seems to be doing what I hope to with my career. He’s got a world view (which I don’t necessarily agree with) and he’s writing a variety of novels in different genres to explore that view. I look forward to his next.

Madeleine L’Engle

I was saddened to hear that Madeleine L’Engle has died. Her novel “A Wrinkle in Time” was one of the iconic pieces of literature of my childhood. She followed it with “A Wind in the Door” and “A Swiftly Tiltling Planet”, both also favorites of mine.

Whether it was the approach of my adulthood, or a change in her writing, I never found any of the other of her books nearly as engaging as those first three, but they were enough. I suspect those three books were the first to set me on the path of writing speculative fiction.

She’ll be missed.

Summer ’07 – Blockbuster 7 – HPATDH

Not all blockbusters are movies. And since the first weekend sales of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” pretty much blew away the opening weekend of the movie version of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”, it’s clear that blocks have been busted.

This will be a short, spoiler-free review to begin, with more detail just a click away.

Rowling decided, with this final book, to do two very specific things with the narrative. The first was to return Harry’s pals, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, to prominence in the story. With dozens of characters and plots around every corner, the triumverate of these three school chums became less and less central to the books. For great swaths of this book, it’s just those three, working — and arguing — together. That was a nice choice.

The second thing she did was to keep Hogwarts in the background for most of the book. That was a daring choice, considering it was so dominant a presence in the six previous volumes. Once we finally do return to the school, it’s like coming home again, even if under dire circumstances.

The problems with the Harry Potter books remain problems in this one. The clunky methods for passing on exposition to the reader in particular continue to annoy. Overheard conversations continue to advance the plot of this final book, even as they did the others. Convenience bothers me in fiction, and while there is loss in the story, there are also a number of lucky coincidences that just set my teeth on edge.

But, all in all, a good book. Probably one of the best of the series. (Though I still have a fondness for “Prisoner of Azkaban” and the wonderful lessons of Remus Lupin, pretty much the only professor we ever saw actually teach something useful to the students.)

For more thoughts, and spoilers, read on…

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“The Drummer, the Private Eye, and Me”

One man’s tale of how he wrote a story, inspired a song, and 35 years later, went riding with the world’s greatest drummer.

You’ll Never Guess The #1 Book on Amazon

Surprise!  It’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)

You are surprised, aren’t you?

It’s just the beginning, though.  Highlights from the top 12…
  1.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)
  3.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Audio Book)
  6.  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Paperback)
  7.  Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-6)
11.  Harry Potter Boxset Books 1-7
12.  Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Hardback)

The Undercover Economist

A similar book I preferred to "Freakonomics" is "The Undercover Economist" by Tim Harford.  It was a little more back-to-basics economics, but covers game theory and imperfect information very nicely in a wholly accessible way.

I have the audiobook on my iPod in the car and have listened to the whole thing at least four times.  Every time I am entertained and engrossed.  Highly recommended.