Friday, January 31, 2014

The books of January

The unusually cold Bay Area weather colluded with the short January days to give me a lot of time to read; here's the result. Books listed in order of acquisition; reading was interleaved and out of order, as usual.

1. Henry Petroski: To forgive design. (I'm a fan of Petroski's work, and have all his books.) In this book Petroski extends the study of engineering failure to include systemic components and human decision-making, getting into Donald Norman territory. For anyone interested in technology, engineering, and understanding the way things work and fail, this is a must-read.

2. Matthew Jackson: Social and economic networks. This is technically a work book, but I already know its contents, so I read it for pleasure. It's reasonable as a set of class notes for Jackson's course and MOOC, fairly technical for the general educated public.

3. Charles Gasparino: The sellout. Reads like a novel about the crash of 2008. Gasparino,  a journalist, writes better than former trader Michael Lewis, with better information and broader vision (because Lewis was in "the trenches" where vision is necessarily limited), and without a chip on his shoulder against the financial system. Read in two sittings in two consecutive evenings. Take that, tell-lies-vision.

4. Duff McDonald: The firm: the story of McKinsey. I won't comment on this book, other than to say I highlighted a large number of passages.

5. Richard Hammond: Or is that just me? (Library book; doing my part to slow down economic growth.) The self-described short bloke from Top Gear writes about the making of some of his shows and some personal stories. It's not bad per se, but it's not funny or insightful, like the books by the louder, bigger Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson. I started skimming, then skipping ahead, and eventually gave up in the middle. Sorry, Hamster.

6. Charles Gasparino: Circle of friends. (Library book.) Again reads like a novel, and I read it in one sitting on the weekend. If you like financial and governmental shenanigans, read it: it describes the witch hunt criminal investigation of insider trading in the late 2000s. As one of those involved points out, it's funny how insider trading is touted as a heinous crime, and people serve time for it, but it doesn't make people poor, like bubbles, which have produced zero arrests.

7. Charles Gasparino: Blood on the street. (Library book.) Unsurprisingly, it reads like a novel and I read it in one sitting on the weekend. The same weekend. (Bad weather weekend.) If you like financial and governmental shenanigans, read it: it's the story of the late-90s stock boom and bust, with an emphasis on the conflicts of interest between analysts and investment bankers in the same firms, while the various regulators looked away, then political opportunism in finding a few scapegoats. (This is my interpretation of the book, not how it's presented.)

8. Peter Mayle: Acquired tastes. Got it after reading this post at A Suitable Wardrobe. A fun description of some luxuries by a member of the upper middle class — which looks sober and thrifty compared to the lifestyles of the rich and shameless of the third Millenium. Also a infomercial in text for Provence (not that it needs one). Two examples. Laugh-out-loud, especially for anyone who has spent time in France outside Paris, ski resorts, and beaches.

During January indoor rowing, elliptical walking, commuting, shopping, cleaning and other dead times, I also heard a few audiobooks (fewer than usual, but I listen to a few interesting podcasts and they compete for the same aural time):

9. Clayton Christensen: How will you measure your life? Reflections on what is important in life; a little more philosophical than one would expect from a Hahvahd B.S. professor. Made me think hard about some of my life choices, which is all that can be asked of a book like this.

10. Oscar Wilde: The importance of being earnest (performance). Obviously a reread, and I've also watched a few live performances and movies based on it before. Wilde's writing is magnificent and the actors (not readers) do a great job. The play is available free on the interwebs.

11. David Weinberger: Too big to know. Only heard part of it, still about two-thirds to go, but it's not grabbing my attention, to say the least. Perhaps a harsh assessment, since I have a professional interest in the issues of the book. But in general I tend to like popular books on my area of technical expertise, so the problem is mostly with the book, not any professional elitism on my part.

As is my habit, I reread bits and pieces (sometimes large fractions of the book) of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Ian Fleming [James Bond], and Agatha Christie [Poirot] here and there. Even some Umberto Eco essays! I haven't read any new fiction, since I find most of what's on offer formulaic and preachy, often poorly written and scarcely researched as well.

(Someone pointed out that in my "Books of 2013" post I missed quite a few, like the haul from the SFPL shown in this photo or this one. That's because I didn't log them; the system isn't perfect.)


In the reading queue for February (not counting work-related materials, which take about half of my "leisure" reading time), meaning books I already acquired but had no time to read in January:

a. Niall Ferguson: High financier: the lives and time of Siegmund Warburg. (SFPL book.) Got the library copy to reread - I had read a library copy in 2010. (Slowing down economic growth even then.) Returning books to the library recently, I saw it and checked it out on impulse. That a person would choose to reread the biography of a mid-century banker on impulse is review enough for the book (or the person!), but to be fair to Ferguson: unlike most narrative writers now, who pepper their prose with irrelevant distracting details, NF picks the interesting parts of the story and paints a picture of a sober, vaguely obsessive, cunning banker who lived an interesting life.

b. Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca: A history of Western music, 8th edition. (SFPL book.) I own the portuguese translation of the third edition and I'm considering buying the upcoming tenth edition. Since it's a textbook and therefore costs its weight in DeBeers diamonds, I decided to check this intermediate edition to get an idea of the changes. (Textbook publishers use unnecessary proliferation of editions to undermine the used book market, and the parts of Western music that I care the most about happened too long ago for their history to have changed much from edition to edition.)

c. Lawrence Freedman Strategy: a history. Books that take a very broad view of strategy tend to be either good (rarely great) or very bad. I saw his talk at Google and since the book was only $10 on Kindle I bought it on impulse. (Publishers: cheap books mean a lot more impulse sales; do your math.) The sample was not too bad, so it might not be one of those very bad books.

d & e. Peter Mayle: A year in Provence and Toujours Provence. (Two eBooks, plus an abridged audiobook version of the two.) Given how funny Acquired Tastes was, I decided to try a couple more; added the audiobook so I can enjoy it on assorted torture repetitive exercise machines.

f. Peter Mayle: French lessons: adventures with knife, fork, and corkscrew. (Audiobook; considering the companion Kindle book to try Amazon whispersync.) Another Mayle book for exercise occasions. I expect that these books will put some stress on the Paleo, but then again – to paraphrase my PhD advisor, a very wise man – life is too short to eat bad food.

g. Lucius Beebe: The provocative pen of Lucius Beebe, Esq. (SFPL book.) Beebe is a chronicler of San Francisco in the old days, and I like the history of this city. People who protest ongoing changes in the city seem to not understand its history. San Francisco has changed its character more often than any city I've ever known, and that's one of the exciting things about it.

h. Herb Caen: Only in San Francisco. (Berkeley Public Library book.) Another chronicler of San Francisco's past. I like the city, I really do. I just don't want to live in it; the suburbs are much nicer than the city, now. Caen calls San Francisco Baghdad-by-the-bay in an eponymous book; Beebe's description, older, is more like Paris in the West Coast, with Boston being London on the East Coast.

i. Burt Folsom: The myth of the robber barons. On the recommendation of Free The Animal, I watched the author's video, so I'll read the book to balance out all the Aaron Sorkin series (The West Wing, The Newsroom) and movies I have watched.

j. Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis: Abundance. (Audiobook.) Strangely enough, I find listening to popular books about my areas of expertise a good way to relax after work (on top of a elliptical machine, an indoor rower, or a treadmill – that's an essential part; never during resistance training, all 11 minutes per week of it).

k. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: The second machine age. Ok, this one is close to a work book, but it isn't technical (at least from the quick browse), so I'll count it as leisure reading. (My work books have phrases like "compact space," "support vector machine," and "Markov perfect equilibrium." Also, they cost their weight in Beluga caviar.)

(That's eleven books – plus one abridged audiobook and an art book, Architecture Now 9, which should arrive tomorrow (it did) – in the queue and February hasn't even started yet. I already pre-ordered a couple of books coming out in March. It never ends.)


The secret to reading all these books is very little television. (Also, being a vaguely misanthropic bachelor with no children.) For example, arriving home at 6PM I brew a pot of tea, sit in a comfortable chair, and read until dinner at the civilized European hour of 10PM; many people I know vegetate in front of the tell-lies-vision for the same period. (Or have families.) Reading four hours a day, eight or more per day on weekends, even if half of it is work-related, means two or three books per week.

Here are a few recommendations for improving the reading experience:

A comfortable chair is of paramount importance. Not an ergonomic office chair; a club chair. A tall overstuffed leather chair invites the relaxed feeling necessary to enjoy a book; ergonomic office chairs demand efficiency, measurable return on time invested, results Now! An ottoman is a better foot rest than a La-z-boy-type contraption designed for bovine ingestion of tell-lies-vision.  Fireplace and labrador retriever are optional.

If I'm reading on an electronic device, an increasingly common situation, I put it in airplane mode, blocking out the World Wide Wasteland. For the same reason I never read with the television on, even if muted.

Soft warm light is very important, especially at night; there's the matter of intensity (too bright you'll feel like you're being interrogated, too dim and your eyes will soon be tired) and of warmth, or hue. Most fluorescent lights (and cheap LED lights) have too much blue and violet in them; get a "warmer" lightbulb, one with more yellow and red, especially if you read a lot at night. Or bounce a "cold" light off a warm-colored reflector.

I like to have soft background music, usually something from between mid-16th and early 18th centuries; the mathematical precision of Buxtehude or his pupils J.S. Bach and Handel can serve as a mental rest area when I pause to parse a thought. Friends tell me they use jazz, but I find it distracting.

Reading: it's a cheap hobby, an invaluable habit.