Category Archives: Non-fiction

“Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Firsthand stories from Russians who lived through the transition from communism to capitalism.  For the most part, the main emotions they have is shock and anger — Russia threw away the great dream of socialism, which they worked so hard for and suffered for (even some former work camp inmates long for the old days), and sold it so cheaply for blue jeans, VCRs, and salami.  (For some reason there is a very consistent reference to salami, as in if you have salami, life is good.  I guess it was scarce during Soviet times?)  Now, mobsters and a$$holes are in charge.

It was sickening to read about parts of Russia occupied by Germans during the war.  In one Jewish village, they marched everyone out to the woods, had men dig two big pits, threw kids in one and buried them alive; then threw everyone else in the other one and buried them.  Sick.  Of course Stalin and his like did some similar stuff; yet for the most part Stalin’s image is fairly intact, even today.  The attitude is that he was harsh, but he won the war and bootstrapped the country to the forefront of the world; he was what Russia needed at the time.  So they say.

One story from a man imprisoned in a work camp from age 16 to 30, who came out to no family or friends.  Very lonely.  Eventually married a woman who had a daughter and found some peace.  Just before he died: “Write that I was a happy man on my tombstone. That I was loved.  The most terrible torment is not being loved.”

Other choice quotes:

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.”

“We’d built it all then handed it over to the gangsters.”


“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.

“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.

“Orange is the New Black” by Piper Kerman

Prison doesn’t sound too bad – just kind of a pointless state of limbo for the prisoners.

“Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom” by Stephen R. Platt

An account of the last few years of the Taiping Rebellion, with a focus on British involvement.  Although sparked by a religious movement, the author characterizes the Taiping as a long-suppressed reaction of the majority Chinese to centuries of (mis)rule by the foreign Manchu invaders, ie. the Qing Dynasty.  The Qing were ripe for overthrow and quite ineffectual by this point; their demise was postponed 50 years or so by two factors; first that the British (eventually) threw in their lot with the Qing against the Taiping on rather flimsy and biased reporting by just a few officials, and second that Zeng Guofan declined to take power for himself when he definitely could have done so.

British policy during this period flip-flopped or otherwise struggled to find a direction.  Technically, they claimed to be neutral in the Chinese civil war … but at one point, they were fighting separately against both parties.  British in Shanghai were defending against a Taiping assault while a British fleet attacked the Qing’s Taku forts and the Summer Palace at Beijing in the climax of what is now called the Second Opium War.  Soon after, the British were persuaded by Frederick Bruce that the Taiping were up to no good and the only hope for stability in China would be to help the Qing stay afloat.

Many others, including historians today, believe the Taiping were on the road to victory and would have done alright, in spite of the somewhat crazy behavior of the founder, Hong Xiuquan.  (Sidenote – not much on Hong Xiuquan’s rise or Taiping doctrine or society in this book; really just about the war.  At one point though it said that Hong Xiuquan was claiming to be the new member of the Trinity, replacing the Holy Spirit…)

A fascinating character when thinking about what the Taiping might have turned into is Hong Rengan, Hong Xiuquan’s cousin.  Long before his cousin’s visions, Hong Rengan was a Christian convert in Hong Kong and worked as an assistant to foreign missionaries.  When the Taiping became ascendant, he was sent to his cousin with high hopes that “true Christianity” would replace the Taiping creole.  At first things seemed to go better than their wildest dreams – Hong Xiuquan heartily welcomed his cousin and offered him the title of “Shield King” and responsibility as the foreign minister for the Taiping government.  Hong Rengan had a grand plan of strong friendship and cooperation with Western powers in a bid jumpstart Chinese industry and technology, much like the reforms of the Meiji Restoration later in Japan.  (Another sidenote – the author points out the Japan profited well by observing China’s problems – first by opening up to the West peacefully whereas the Chinese went kicking and screaming via Opium Wars; second by accelerating technological progress to catch up to the West whereas the Qing stagnated.)  Despite his best efforts, Western perception of the Taiping went downhill and Hong Rengan’s plans were never to be.

Finally we have Zeng Guofan, the scholar-general.  A Qing government official (though not a Manchu) and product of the examination system, he became a local militia leader in Hunan in the fight against the Taiping mainly because no one else at all was left to take the job.  From the accounting in this book, he seemed very methodical in his leadership — he thought deeply about the problems at hand, devised a strategy with much careful deliberation, and then stuck to that strategy no matter what until the goal was achieved.  He became something of a warlord and ignored direct orders from the Emperor when they went against his own strategy — not out of disloyalty, but because he knew that the Emperor didn’t know as much about the “situation on the ground” as he did.  Anyway, at the end of the day, Zeng’s army conquered the Taiping capital of Nanjing, effectively killing the movement.  He very well could have taken his army on to Beijing and toppled the severely weakened Qing, but did not.  Perhaps something of a George Washington character (leaving after two terms instead of becoming King George) or maybe he just didn’t want to take on all the empire’s problems any longer.

Both Zeng, the other Qing, and the Taiping were very brutal in this conflict.  Entire populations of cities, whether the Manchu district if conquered by Taiping, or everyone if conquered by Qing, were murdered upon their capture.  Cannibalism became common in besieged cities and also in the countryside at large, being devasted by a decade of roving armies.  Not a fun time to be alive.

“Reminiscences of a Stock Operator” by Edwin Lefevre

Thoughts on stock trading from “Larry Livingston”, a pseudonym for Jesse Livermore, successful trader around the turn of the century.

  • “Give up trying to catch the last eighth, or the first.  These two are the most expensive eights in the world.”  In other words, don’t buy too early (without a clear upward signal) and don’t sell too late.
  • It’s more important to catch the big, market-wide bull/bear runs than the little fluctuations of an individual stock.  I think of the “buy the dip” approach — this only works if you are in a bull market.
  • Ease into positions.  If you think you want 500 shares, start at 100 shares and see how the market goes.  If it goes up 1%, then by the next 100 and wait again.  Repeat until you have your whole position.  Always have a -1% trailing stop in mind.
  • Price doesn’t really matter – what you want to know is the “line of least resistance.”
    • Maybe in our day and age, he would be a proponent of order book analysis?
  • Traders must reverse the natural inclination of hope and fear.
    • Natural:
      • Hope when your stock is down that it will come back up, so you hold too long
      • Fear when your stock is up that it will go down, so you sell out too soon
    • Must change to:
      • Hope when your stock is up – hope it keeps rising; don’t sell winners too soon
      • Fear when your stock is down – fear it could drop even lower; don’t hang on to losers
  • Tips are worthless — realize you are being manipulated.
  • Towards the end of the book, lots of stories about market manipulation that didn’t seem very applicable to us little fish, except to recognize such things happening amongst the whales.
    • If you get to be a whale, remember that liquidity matters.