Category Archives: Books

“Reamde” by Neal Stephenson

Memorable story, but not really cyberpunk-y at all like Stephenson’s other stuff.

There is a World of Warcraft-like MMORPG called T’Rain that sets up the initial plot.  A Chinese hacker of the game, “The Troll,” created a ransomware virus that encrypts user’s files unless an in-game ransom is paid, via a drop at a specific location.  A different hacker named Peter, in Seattle, accidentally gives this virus to a shady dude, Wallace, as he sells him a bunch of stolen credit card numbers.  Unfortunately, the shady dude works for a Russian mobster, and lots of other important stuff gets encrypted on his computer.

The mobster, Ivanov, and crew get to Seattle and kidnap Peter as well as his girlfriend, Zula, an Eritrean refugee adopted in childhood by a family in Iowa, and whose uncle coincidentally is the creator of T’Rain.  Ivanov goes sort of crazy when they are unable to decrypt the files or payoff the troll (the area in T’Rain is overrun by armies stealing gold from virus victims before they can deposit it).  So he takes them along with a Hungarian hacker named Csongor to Xiamen to search for the troll and get revenge.

They find the apartment building.  Zula, Peter, and Csongor are chained to a pipe in the basement while Ivanov’s team of mercenaries, led by all-around badass but really a good guy at heart Sokolov, go to confront the troll.  But at the last minute, Zula directs them to one apartment above where they actually think the troll lives and she uses the fuse box to cycle power to the troll’s apartment in an attempt to warn him.  Her intentions are good – no one deserves torture/murder at the hands of a crazy Russian mobster.  Even if it means losing her own life – she already figures Ivanov will kill them when he’s done with the troll.

Here is where the story takes a major twist.  Turns out the apartment they barge in on was a safehouse for a group of jihadists.  A massive firefight ensues, and the main jihadist, Abdullah Jones, ends up escaping with Zula as a hostage.  It all gets pretty “Mad, Mad, Mad World” with groups of characters hijacking a plane to Canada, or a boat to the Phillipines, a British MI6 agent trying to get out of China, and especially towards the end, as the jihadists and all the other main characters converge on a compound of right-wing extremists in Northern Idaho (“American Taliban” as Sokolov puts it) owned by another of Zula’s uncles.

First thought is how instantaneous choices can have extensive repercussions.  Zula’s choice to spare the troll seemed to lead to many more deaths than would otherwise have occurred.  Yet still there is no question she did the right thing at the right time.

Second thought, the whole T’Rain angle was really abandoned midway through.  There’s backstory and set up of a civil war going on between bright and dark liveried characters, possibly fueled by competing game writers, but the subplot just goes nowhere.  Also the few descriptions of T’Rain make it seem way too detailed to be possible – characters wiggling fingers for instance.



“Against the Gods” by Peter L. Bernstein

This is a book on the history of risk, mostly on the key developments in the mathematical history of probability theory.  Kind of a weird topic, but interesting enough.  Probability theory is so important across a wide range of other fields.

I was a little distracted with lots of little errors throughout, eg. p. 117 Jacob Bernoulli lived from 1654-1705, but next paragraph says he died at age 80.  P. 78 says 7195 plague deaths during week in Sept 1665, but figure on next page has that many deaths for April 1665.

Before the age of rationality, risk was obviously known.  A dice would sometimes turn up a 1, sometimes a 6.  But apparently not much formal thought was given to why or how risk could be exploited or avoided — it was in the hands of fate, or the up to the “gods” as in this book’s title.

Knowledge was built up little by little. Often there were independent advances tailored to solving a specific problem, eg. calculating gambling odds or mortality tables.  Makes me not feel so bad about not grasping hard subjects immediately; not even the originating geniuses did that from scratch. By the same token, how wonderful it is that books and knowledge transfer exist.  Really, that’s the one key characteristic of modern humanity. Intelligence + society.  But I digress.

There’s a chapter on Galton and regression to the mean, plus the context of the “random walk” of the stock market.  The recommendation is to “ignore short-term volatility and hold on for the long pull… The stock market may be a risky place for a matter of months or even for a couple of years, but the risk of losing anything substantial over a period of five years or longer should be small.”  Ok, easy enough, and squares with our experiences in the USA over the past 100 years or so.

However, regression to the mean is easily spotted in historical data, but then other times just fails to materialize. There is an anecdote from 1959, when stock dividends began to surpass bond yields.  Old hands predicted that the situation would soon reverse to normal (with bonds more of a surety). “I am still waiting. The fact that something so unthinkable could occur has had a lasting impact on my view of life and on investing in particular…has left me skeptical about the wisdom of extrapolating from the past… Never depend on <regression to the mean> to come into play without constantly questioning the relevance of the assumptions that support the procedure.”

This reaches a conclusion in the chapters on Frank Knight and Keynes.  They seem to be saying that all previous probability theory is not applicable to real world situations with irrational humans involved, because all probability-based forecasting is based on a set of past data.  Past results impose no guarantee on future behavior when non-deterministic humanity is involved.

There is always uncertainty: “Under conditions of uncertainty, the choice is not between rejecting a hypothesis and accepting it, but between reject and not-reject.  You can decide that the probability that you are wrong is so small that you should not reject the hypothesis.  You can decide that the probability the you are wrong is so large that you should reject the hypothesis.  But with any probability short of zero that you are wrong – certainty rather than uncertainty – you cannot accept a hypothesis.”

Some treatment of Kahneman, including the loss aversion and the endowment effect – “our tendency to set a higher selling price on what we own than what we would pay for the identical item if we did not own it.”

Finally a brief treatment of portfolio insurance, options, and other derivatives.  I read somewhere that economic crashes are rarer now due to fancy risk mitigation devices such as these, but they make the crashes which come much more severe.

Best Books I Read in 2017

A little late, but here’s a recap of my 2017 reading.

Non-fiction: 17 total (8 were audio books)

Fiction: 7 total (3 were audio books)

For a grand total of 24 … which is exactly the same as 2016!  (and 2015 was 25 … fairly steady ~2.5 weeks per book for me)

And now the awards.  I gave them names this year because, why not.

The Sparrowhawk Award, for best fiction, goes to … A Deepness in the Sky!  Great depiction of a very otherworldly civilization (of giant spiders!  Eeek!) but still relatable to us humans.

And the Apollo Award, for best non-fiction, goes to … Carrying the Fire!  The best account yet of being a part of the program for which this award gets its name.

And we have a few runners-up.  First, Houdini!!!; the book kind of slogged in parts but what a fascinating life.  And second, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, which at some future date could quite possibly receive an award for changing the course of my life the most.  Maybe call it… the Truman Award?



“The Moral Compass” by William J. Bennett

I remember a copy of Bennett’s “Book of Virtues” that my parents had, probably from the time it was first published.  Don’t recall ever having read through it though.  I do remember being intrigued a bit, probably due to the Ultima connection.

Anyway, “The Moral Compass” is a follow-on to that earlier book, and more of the same.  A collection of poems, fables, and short stories that are supposed to teach some moral lesson.  Pretty good; many stories which made me think a bit.

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” – Lincoln


“Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

The Radch are a ginormous space empire, which until recently expanded rapidly via a large fleet of powerful warships manned by armies.  Each ship is actually an artificial intelligence, and many of the armies are actually “ancillaries.”  When a new planet is conquered by the Radch, resistance is quickly nullified and any opponents are brutally exterminated, reeducated via sophisticated brainwashing, or sent to be stored until needed as new Radch soldiers.  Entire armies of these soldiers, called ancillaries, are controlled by a single ship AI.

“Justice of Toren” was a ship, but because of plot reasons the physical ship was destroyed and all that remains is a single ancillary, AKA Breq AKA One Esk.  She* tries to unravel exactly what happened to cause her destruction, and the results lead her to a confrontation with Anaander Mianaai (love the name!), Lord of the Radch.  It’s such a busy job that many years ago, Mianaai split her conciousness into several bodies (somewhat reminiscent of House of Suns); by now there are thousands of them and they’ve lived for thousands of years.  Well, turns out that Mianaai is something of a split personality – factions have broken out among her parts…

* Interesting use of “she” throughout the book.  The narrator, the ancillary, is more or less Radch, and they apparently don’t have any set notion of gender; everyone is a “she”.  Pretty sure that Breq’s compadre, Seivarden, is a male, but actually not sure about Breq “herself.”  I guess Ann Leckie is trying to make us more sensitive to current gender fluidity issues, or at least capitalize on them??


“An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” by Grant H. Palmer

Palmer’s book is short but packed with tons of very interesting, well documented points that really call into question a lot of the Joseph Smith “truth” claims.  Things that stood out to me the most listed below.

  • Ch 1 – During the Book of Mormon translation, the word in English appeared on the seerstone; Joseph read it to the scribe.  So the old argument that “horse” really meant some “equivalent” animal makes no sense.  And even if it did, what about cureloms? There’s an unfamiliar animal for which Joseph didn’t pick the “equivalent”.   Similar: “Raca” in 3 nephi 12:22 is an Aramaic term.
  • Ch 2 – I didn’t realize how many parts of Book of Mormon are taken from the New Testament, to the point of using the same phrasing. On one hand the same God would give same message…but what are the odds the translation from different languages and at different times would result in such commonality??  Sure seems probable that it is a product of someone steeped in the New Testament such that its words became his words.
  • Ch 3 – Book of Mormon prophecies are very specific up until about 1830, then very vague after. Hmm…  Also, not sure why this never stood out to me as odd, but the three days of light at Jesus birth and three days darkness at death – why were these not witnessed and documented around the world?  We have ancient records of eclipses and supernovas and the like; I’m sure such a larger event would have been noted.  I guess the event could have been localized to the Americas and not dependent on planetary geometry, so the Old World wouldn’t have been effected … ?
  • Ch. 4 – conversions in the Book of Mormon follow revival meeting pattern. The whole Book of Mormon is Methodist preaching and exhortation!  Some very striking comparisons to Methodist preachings here, similar to comparisons to the New Testament in Chapter 2.
  • Changes to the Book of Mormon — “Father” –> “Son of God” changes.   The first God in the Book of Mormon was a single individual, Father and Christ.  Later they got separated.  Some got missed eg Mosiah 15:1-4. “From the beginning, the miracle of the Restoration has been the ability of its leaders to see things in a new light.” Funny!
  • Golden Pot story – eh, ok. Kind of a stretch.
  • Witnesses – they later said that they saw with “second sight” or “eyes of our understanding” … ie imagination. All very superstitious and gullible.  Palmer points out the they and many others claiming religious experiences in this era are something like those claiming UFO sightings or alien abductions today – maybe just something about humanity; some people believe crazy stuff and it kind of propagates somehow.  Does seem disingenuous to allow church members to believe these things as physical truth, though…
  • Both Priesthood Restoration and First Vision seem reconstructed in later years to support Joseph’s preeminence in the church. The Palmyra revival was probably 1824; in 1838, when his official history was written, Joseph reported it was 1820.  Palmer suggests this was to preempt his previous sole claim on divine authority, which came from Moroni … in 1838, the Book of Mormon was being discredited, for one thing due to Martin Harris announcing in the Kirtland Temple that he had never physically seen the plates, only spiritually as discussed above.

With all this spiritual stuff being confused for physical … can’t really trust Joseph or anyone’s speeches as literal.  Although I suppose that is true for all men at all times – we can never be sure what their true feelings are vs what they want another to think.  The arts of persuasion and manipulation are real.  Of course that goes for historical accounts as well.  Man, now I don’t know what to trust anymore…


“No Man Knows My History” by Fawn M. Brodie

After reading this book, I can see why LDS church leaders really got ticked off at Fawn Brodie and excommunicated her.  But it was really well written, seems to be well researched, and was very interesting to read for someone familiar with other Joseph Smith accounts. Brodie assumes and makes the case that Joseph Smith was most definitely a fraud, either intentionally to make a living (and later as his standing grew among his people, to get whatever he could — mostly other men’s wives or young girls in bed) or perhaps due to being incapable of distinguishing physical reality from his Bible-influenced fantasies.

Brodie’s history of Joseph’s early days contain many discrepancies with the official church account.  His first autobiographical sketch in 1834 “contained no whisper of an event that, if it had happened, would have been the most soul-shattering experience of his whole youth” — the First Vision.  “If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph’s home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family.”  Furthermore, Joseph spent the years after his remarkable vision not in preparing the way or himself somehow for his prophetic mission, but in searching out secret treasures — “money digging.”

After an arrest and acquittal on fraud for money digging activities, Brodie suggests Joseph retooled his methods and came up with his next act.  There was a lot of speculation about Indian origins and artifacts around his area of New York, particularly burial mounds.  Per Joseph, an angelic visitor named Moroni led him to secret buried golden plates, from which he “translated” the Book of Mormon.  (Quotes around “translated” since by all accounts he didn’t actually read from the plates, but rather read the English words off a seerstone.)  Alexander Campbell sarcastically noted that the Book of Mormon neatly solved all religious controversies debated in New York over the previous ten years.  Also, to couple with the First Vision ambiguities, the original Book of Mormon clearly made Christ and the Father the same God … odd since Joseph had seen them as two distinct beings.  (Well, at least there were two beings in a few of the First Vision accounts…)  Most of these references to one God were subsequently changed, but some still remain.

Other notes of interest:

  • Brodie seemed to suggest in her explanation of the witnesses, and visions shared with Cowdery that Joseph was a hypnotist??  Or maybe I misunderstood.  Would be interesting…
  • One of Joseph’s miracles was healing Elsa Johnson’s arm.  But contrast with numerous failed healings at the first general conference in Kirkland… Maybe many of the “miracles” we hear about today were only a fraction of the attempts, a kind of survivor bias.
  • Similarly, most of Joseph’s prophecies went bust.  One that is still trotted out from time to time is his prediction of the Civil War, beginning in South Carolina.  Well, actually he was anticipating a much shorter term realization of that prophecy, in what became known as the Nullification Crisis … of course about 30 years too early for the real war.  The prophecy was apparently an embarrassment until dug up by Brigham in the 1860’s.
  • Zions camp was kind of hilarious, eg. getting so mad at cousin Sylvester Smith that he threw the Ram’s horn used to call the camp to attention at him, breaking it.  But the whole thing was really a strategic debacle – marching an army made the Missouri situation more desperate and forced the mobbers hand, thwarting efforts of the Governor to bring peace.
  • During the defense preparations in Far West, Joseph along with Rigdon were very outspoken in calling for violence, eg. “Joseph Smith or the sword” and insinuating anyone anyone fleeing the coming fight should be killed.  Joseph preached that the power of God would prevail and angels would fight with them “And for every one we lack in number to match the mob, the Lord will send an angel to fight alongside.”  But later during the siege, he secretly sent emissaries secretly to “beg like a dog for peace” and surrendered the next day.  “You are good and brave men, but there are 10,000 men approaching Far West, and unless you were angels themselves you could not withstand so formidable a host.”  Uh, wait a minute, Joseph, what about your promise from yesterday???
  • Short but revealing account during the Far West time of Rigdon saying something disapproving about Joseph’s wrestling on the Sabbath, then Joseph going over to him, ripping his coat and mocking him.  Kind of seems like an arrogant person who thought himself above the law, including God’s.
  • Never realized this:  one reason the Saints found (temporary) peace in Nauvoo was that they were a bargaining chip in Illinois politics.  Desiring to please the leader of this new, large voting bloc, politicians of both main parties felt the incentive to keep Joseph from being extradited back to Missouri, and otherwise give in to his demands (eg. Nauvoo charter).
  • Lying for the Lord: Joseph made numerous public denials of polygamy, as did other leaders and even some of his wives.  Apparently they rationalized this because they were against “polygamy” but for “the doctrine of plurality of wives”.  Ok….
  • Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde: sad stories of having wives taken…
  • In the later Nauvoo years, Joseph kind of seemed to go off the rails. On attorneys – “I know more than they all”. “God is my right hand man.”  Said to Josiah Quincy, in joking tone – “They think I’m a prophet!”  And this is ridiculous: “He had the city council pass an ordinance providing that if any officer came to Nauvoo with a writ for his arrest based on the old Missouri difficulties, he should be arrested, tried, and if found guilty sentenced to life imprisonment in the city jail. He could be pardoned by the governor only with the consent of the Nauvoo mayor – that is, Joseph himself.”

Brodie’s picture is of an actor playing a role. Joseph was a prophet because he thought he was a prophet, and people believed him.  When claiming a “revelation” he was really saying ‘I’ve thought long and hard about this and I feel that this must be the Lord’s will, since it is so obvious to me that it’s the very thing that he would want to tell his people right now.’

‘Joseph would allow no arrogance or undue liberties,’ said one friend, ‘and criticisms, even by his associates, were rarely acceptable, and contradictions would rouse in him the lion at once, for by no one of his fellows would he be superseded.’. Herein was his great strength and his most fatal weakness. For no man whose chief virtues were love of compromise, justice,and prudence could set himself up as a prophet. But neither could any man who trampled on these virtues survive as a political force in America.



“Symphonies of Beethoven” by Robert Greenberg

Only listened to part 1 of 3, which covered Beethoven’s bio plus Symphonies 1 & 2.

Beethoven was a creative genius for sure; but also strikes me as an insufferable, arrogant, and uninterested in most other things in life besides his art.  The story of his growing deafness, and the fact that he still composed some of the greatest music while mostly deaf, is fascinating.  The Heiligenstadt Testament discusses some of his feelings of despair upon realizing his deafness was not going away but was getting worse, and how it made him feel like a fraud or at least a laughingstock.  Tragic!

The format of lectures on the Symphonies themselves was off-putting to me, but mostly because I don’t have the musical vocabulary to understand what the lecturer is talking about.  He was pretty entertaining – describing a section of music as sounding like something you would dance to when “a weevil was stuck in your undergarments” is a pretty funny line.  But the symphony is only played in pieces, and those usually less than a minute, with lots of (mostly unintelligible to me) commentary in between.  I think I’ll skip parts 2 & 3 and just get a copy of the Symphonies themselves to listen to.


“Magnificent Desolation” by Buzz Aldrin


If you want a story about Apollo, this isn’t it.  It’s much more a story of Buzz’s journey through alcoholism and depression in the decades since his famous moonwalk.

His response is kind of understandable – his whole life, he always had big goals driving him.  Fighter pilot, MIT PhD, astronaut training, then going to the Moon.  But once you have walked on the Moon, what other goal can even come close?  What do you do after accomplishing your dream?  I’m not sure if Aldrin is satisfied yet, but I think he is on the right track with trying to inspire others to achieve similar goals (return of manned space travel, especially to Mars).

He tells that wherever he goes, people always tell him about where they were on the day he walked on the Moon.  Buzz thought it was strange how consistently people felt the need to share.  Then he realized what it meant – Apollo 11 had permanently inspired in some way virtually everyone who witnessed it.  (I wasn’t alive yet; but I get choked up and a little teary-eyed thinking of the grandeur of it all, if that is even the right word…)

A good chunk of the latter part of the book is a lot of gushing over how great his (third) wife Lois Driggs Cannon is, and how she saved him from depression, etc.  It’s all pretty cringe-worthy, since he and Lois divorced two years after this book was published, and he and his next flame apparently met and started their relationship during the book tour for this book that says so many great things about Lois…

Lois gets a backstory chapter or two, and for some reason the tale of her first husband stuck in my brain.  Maybe because they were/are Mormon?  He was kind of a “most likely to succeed” type in school, then launched a successful business career and family with by all accounts a charming wife.  But he was always restless.  He was unhappy with a series of great executive level jobs.  He took the family on some wild adventures, RVing around Europe for one and river boating around Europe for the other.  But he never found whatever could cure the restlessness.  He eventually divorced Lois out of the blue.  (At least according to Buzz’s account.)  Anyway, seems kind of boring as write about it but I dunno…at my point in life approaching mid-life (“crisis” you might say) I kind of understand that restlessness: what’s the point of it all?

Anyway, enough about that.  Some other interesting tidbits:

  • Buzz was a big supporter of getting non-astronauts up in to space, particularly artists, poets, or songwriters who could convey the emotions better than pilots or engineers.  The first time NASA tried this was … the Challenger mission.  They ended up sending a teacher as the first civilian in space, but Buzz reports that at least at some level John Denver was considered for the post.  I think post-Challenger, NASA got very gunshy about sending civilians up on dangerous journeys … too much potential backlash if things go wrong, with an huge downside of losing all public support.
  • The Omega Speedmaster watch Buzz wore on the Moon was later stolen.  The “Holy Grail” of Apollo collectors.  Gotta be out there somewhere.

“Irrational Exuberance” by Robert J. Shiller

I’ve really been interested in this book for awhile, wondering if it might contain some insight on how to profit from/avoid pain from economic bubbles.  (One bubble of particular interest to me is the ongoing Bitcoin/cryptocurrency bubble.)  While I could tell the book had lots of good stuff and I did take lots of notes, it was kind of a slog to get through for some reason; and didn’t have much actionable intelligence.  Basically, bubbles sometimes “happen for no good reason” (direct quote from the concluding chapter), and then they pop.

Bubble = “a situation in which news of price increases spur investor enthusiasm, which spreads by psychological contagion from person to person, and, in the process, amplifies stories that might justify the price increase and brings in a larger and larger class of investors, who, despite doubts about the real value of the investment, are drawn to it partly through envy of others’ successes and partly through a gambler’s excitement.”

  • Big bubble factor is a public impression that a revolution is underway that will change everything (eg. Internet in late 90s; probably Bitcoin today)
  • In Shiller’s analysis of large stock market bubbles around the world, the reason for large price increases that often get talked about in media don’t usually make logical sense and there is no actionable pattern. Sometimes there is a kind of bubble feedback going on: a bubble/crash exists only because people think that there is a temporary bubble/crash and want to ride/avoid it
  • If we all knew perfectly what our own trading abilities were, there would be no trading: if you were below average, you would never trade because you know you lose most of the time; then the rest would have no one to trade with.
  • Market price is by no means a “vote.” Most investors are just trying to follow the perceived “wisdom of the crowd”
  • Short sale constraints (such as a limited supply and holders unwilling to lend shares) prolong bubbles, because “smart money” is unable sell down the price. Suggests to Policy makers that bubbles can be overcome by freer and more numerous markets. (Converse: less free, fewer markets = bubble breeder?)
  • Higher CAPE can still yield good returns if interest rates low enough
  • Ok, I guess there is something actionable:  sometimes, you need to ignore pleasant fantasies and defend what you already have.