Random Friday: What We Have Read 8

From my reading journal. We haven’t posted from the r-j for a while, so will catch up over the next few weeks.

Fortune’s Formula
William Poundstone

John Kelly at Bell Labs develops a strategy of risk management, applied at blackjack by MIT mathematician Edward O Thorp. Later he applies the same concept to hedge fund Princeton-Newport. A colorful cast of characters appear and re-appear like a Stephenson novel: Claude Shannon, Rudy Giulani, Michael Milken, Warren Buffet, mobsters, Wall Street inside trader Ivan Boesky, LTCM, and more. Truth really is stranger than fiction in this lively twisted story. Highly cogent and revelatory.

The Numbers Behind Numb3rs
Keith Devlin, Gary Lorden

Did you ever suspect the mathematical basis of the CBS crime show “Numb3rs” was occasionally bogus? Certainly not, according to Devlin (NPR “Math Guy”) and Gary Lorden (show math consultant). We are introduced to graph theory of social networks of terrorists, distance functions in multi-variables that include eye color and hair length, applications of wavelets for fingerprints, and a host of other real-world applications.

Of particular note is the CAPPS analysis in the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” chapter. Two MIT grad students analyze the system for selecting passengers for screening before airline flights. Since the terrorists are free to conduct multiple dry runs, the students show that any screening system can do little better than random chance.

The Sharing Knife: Passage
Lois McMaster Bujold

Dag and his young bride Fawn are no longer welcome at Hickory Lake Camp, having violated the taboo of relations between Lakewalkers and farmers. The pair decide to travel among normals, spreading the word about “blight” areas caused by “malices”, so farmers can better avoid the dangerous places and avoid capture by the deadly creatures. The pair decide to take passage down the river, accompanied by Fawn’s brother Whit, where they meet a young riverboat captain searching for her father and fiance. Join the group on a wonderfully drawn journey on the river.

Neil Gaiman

Many characters from Marvel are placed in 1602, with Queen Elizabeth’s rein fated to end, succeeded by James in Scotland. Sir Nicholas Fury is spymaster, Doctor Strange is mystical advisor to the Queen, Matthew Murdock is a blind troubador with a secret life, and so on. Several characters are better disguised from the reader, and it may take a few hints before you place the character with the familiar superhero/villain.

Several mutants are tolerated in the realm by the Queen, but are likely to be persecuted by James, with a suspicious alliance with the Inquisition.

Great fun with the Marvel mythological universe. The writer is even able to plausibly explain the appearance of these characters from the future into an earlier time.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Michael Chabon

After the defeat of Israel in 1948, millions of Jewish refugees live in the temporary federal district of Sitka, Alaska, now only two months from reversion back to state control. Homicide detective and barely-functioning alcoholic Meyer Landsman discovers a body in the same cheap hotel where he lives, and investigates with partner Berko Shemets. We enter a gritty vibrant world of refugees, gangsters, spies, and fanatics, utterly engrossing.

World War Z
Max Brooks

The Zombie War is told as oral history by multiple individuals, describing the rapid collapse of civilization across the world (accelerated by initial secrecy and denial by governments), isolated hold-outs, massive refugee movement to islands, and eventual struggle to take back the world. The book reads as a novel composed of short stories.

The beginning stories are set in varied locations such as Greater Chongqing, Barbados, and Meteora, Greece, drawn with detail adding to the sense of authenticity. Characters are allowed to tell their own stories in their own words, particularly effective in capturing the sense of defeat and desperate struggle in the early stages.

The Man with the Golden Torc
Simon R Green

Eddie Drood (told as first-person) is part of the highly secretive Drood clan that has quietly protected the world from demons, evil geniuses, monsters, and assorted magical beings for generations Each Drood is equipped with a torc that expands to full-body-armor loaded with features. Eddie is on the outs with his family, falsely accused, and must join fate with a witch to uncover secrets and clear his name. Each page reveals some new magical being or artifact or plot twist for a many-layered action-filled ride.

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments
George Johnson

Today published scientific experiments might list a hundred collaborators, but back in the early days of science, a few particularly elegant demonstrations were accomplished by a lone individual, and are capable of being understood by non-scientist reader how the results are significant. Michelson’s measurement of the speed of light, Newton and his elegant experiment with prisms on the nature of color, Pavlov’s salivating dog, and Millikan’s cloud chamber for measuring the charge of an electron are among the experiments included here.

You might quibble about the choice of experiments, but that is a good thing– we techies should all give thought to our own top ten list. The writer does a fine job in explaining the historical context for each experiment, allowing us to understand why each result is so important as to be worth remembering.

This reader would like to see a web site or wiki to accompany the book, to allow the reader to reproduce these experiments (perhaps not Pavlov’s) and see photos of working equipment.

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies
June Casagrande

This former copy editor and word enthusiast skewers well known grammar authorities such as Chicago Manual of Style, William Safire, and Associated Press Stylebook, by noting their lack of agreement on key word issues. She uses this as a hook to keep the reader entertained while providing a refresher in grammar concepts underlying particular questions of word usage.

Farewell, My Subaru
Doug Fine

Join the journalist as he moves to a remote ranch in southern New Mexico with the goals of living sustainably and locally without giving up key perks such as Netflix and Internet. With considerable wit and energy he documents acquiring goats (escape artists with fur), adding solar panels, converting his truck to burn veggie oil, and growing a vegetable garden. With each adventure he frankly relates mistakes made, so we can learn from his efforts and try these projects ourselves. This reader can hope for a sequel.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
Jennifer Lee

The writer explores the world of Chinese restaurants in America, so much unlike traditional food in China, where fortune cookies, chow mein, and egg foo yung, and General Tso’s chicken is unknown. Using the story of the fortune cookie as a foundation, each chapter covers some aspect of this world, including the mass migration of Chinese workers from the province of Fuzhou, take-out boxes, soy sauce (with no soy), Kosher Chinese scandal in DC area, delivery menu wars in Manhattan. Intelligent and lively, this book is a delight for foodies.

Rolling Thunder
John Varley

In previous books Mars had thwarted a sneak attack from powerful interests on Earth, and now has space supremacy with exclusive control of the squeezer propulsion device invented by shy genius Jubal. Podkayne, third generation from one of the first families on Mars, is starting her mandatory military service, lead singer in a small band, part of the entertainment division of the Martian Navy. On a visit to an outpost on Europa, the ground shifts under Poddy, and life gets interesting real fast.

Homage to  Heinlein juvenile fic, this novel is fun and stands on its own. A young person, not yet beaten down by The Man and The System, discovers hidden strengths, nobility of spirit, and fame and success beyond any expectation.

The Lady Tasting Tea
David Salsburg

The development and application of statistics in the twentieth century is traced, by telling the lives of key mathematicians involved and the particular problems they were trying to solve. We start with Galton and the journal Biometrika, Pearson and his skew measurements, Gosset’s measurement of brewing beer, Fisher and “Statistical Methods for Research Workers”, Jerzy Neyman and hypothesis testing, Cornfield and economics modeling, and so on. Many personal anecdotes are related. No equations appear to scare readers, but key statistics concepts are explained with enviable clarity lacking in many textbooks.

The Man in the High Castle
Philip K Dick

Germany and Japan have won the war. Childan lives in the Japan-controlled Rocky Mountain States, selling fake historical American artifacts to wealthy Japanese collectors. Mr. Tagomi, an official in the Japanese embassy in San Francisco, undertakes to guide Childran subtly without the reciprocal social obligations overt advice would entail in Japanese culture. Frank Frink is an artisan intent on creating something new and American, and approaches Childran to sell his creations. Frink’s ex-wife Juliana goes to see the author of Grasshopper, a banned book describing an alternate history where the Axis powers lost the war. Several characters use the I-Ching for advice, and become intertwined. With superior rocket technology, Germany has gone to the moon much earlier than our history, electronics lags far behind, and Germany faces succession struggles and potential conflict with Japan.

Golden Compass
Philip Pullman

After listening to the audio book and seeing the movie, we were glad to finally read the book.

Undercover Economist
Tim Harford

Similar to the style of Freakonomics, this Financial Times Magazine columnist and blogger/columnist for Slate uses economic theory to explain why Starbucks has so many choices, why popcorn costs so much in movie theaters and other questions for the individual, and then moves to issues for larger organizations such as how to structure an auction for wireless spectrum, health care, and development in China. You may disagree with his view on sweatshops or globalization, but be prepared to gain insights to the workings of the economy affecting us all.

Heart of Whitenesse
Howard Waldrop

Another collection of short stories by the creative eccentric, filled with obscure cultural references to challenge the reader. Begin by reading the afterwords first, then read the story with Google nearby, and don’t miss the “Explication and Glossary” at the end of “The Other Real World” while reading that story of the Cold War. “D=RxT” is an existential James Dean style tale of pedal car racing.

The Accidental Time Machine
Joe Haldeman

Matt is a a failed grad student with no social life, toiling long hours and barely clinging to a job as technician in an MIT lab, when he accidentally builds a time machine that seems to only move forward in time with increasingly large time intervals. With visions of fame and fortune he experiments on himself, beginning a series of challenges beginning with felony charges and growing exponentially more difficult.

Similar structure to Forever War.

The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Field Guide
Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

Twins Jared and Simon and older sister Mallory move to an ancient family home, find a secret room and secret journal and secret creatures. Much shorter than a Hogwarts novel, charming, with effective illustrations, this is a good start to a new series.

Black Bodies and Quantum Cats
Jennifer Ouellette

A series of essays of science history in chronological order, including several technology developments such as Velcro, Reddi-Wip, and roller coasters not often found in similar collections. The writer delights in citing modern cultural references, such as a plot point in movie “Addams Family Values” when discussing gravity and the laws of motion.

Moon Flights
Elizabeth Moon

Short stories include several of the Ladies Aid & Armor Society, one Vatta trading tale, and various sword and military plots. Most memorable is “Tradition”, an alternate history story of Admiral Christopher Cradock’s pursuit of German ships in the Med (as opposed to actual engagement off Chile).

Unlike many collections of short stories, these include no introduction or postscript.

Born Standing Up
Steve Martin

This memoir of comedian Steve Martin’s arc from rope tricks at Disneyland and vaudeville at Knott’s Berry Farm to runaway comic success appearing before thousands of screaming fans night after night, succeeds in presenting a sober account of years of striving and a healthy amount of lucky timing ultimately resulting in unexpected wondrous success. Photos and documents add extra spice.

The Rejection Collection vol 2: Cream of the Crap
editied by Matthew Diffee

This second volume of cartoons rejected by the New Yorker (specifically cartoon editor Bob Mankoff) includes for each cartoonist a one-page photo spread, two pages of questionnaire creatively answered, and sadly only three to five cartoons one per page. While we appreciate the large format reproduction of cartoons, we are hungry for more.

The Logic of Life
Tim Harford

The writer of the Undercover Economist blog explores the rational economics explanation for seemingly illogical situations: racism, stubborn pockets of poverty in cities, highly paid CEOs. Game theory as applied to economics is used to explore the dating scene and poker competition. Lively and lucid, much in the style of Freakonomics.

Iron Kissed
Patricia Briggs

Mercy Thompson book 3.

Blood Bound
Patricia Briggs

In Moon Called, Mercedes Thompson needs a favor from vampire friend Stefan, and he has come to ask her help in return, as a secret witness when he meets another. What can be more evil than a vampire or even sorcerer: combo plate. The vampires play a deep and subtle game, and vamp leader Marsilia believes Mercedes poses a special threat to her kind.

Moon Called
Patricia Briggs

Mercedes Thompson, VW mechanic trained by an ancient fae, is a coyote shape-shifter with native-American heritage, raised by a clan of werewolves. Werewolf packs are complex, with dominance politics of wolves blended with human instincts. She becomes deeply involved with the local were pack after a surprise attack.

Breath and Bone
Carol Berg

How to Buy, Sells, and Profit on eBay
Adam Ginsberg

Explains the basics of running an eBay-based business, with many ideas for items to sale, and an enthusiasm which will spur the reader to overcome doubts and take first steps.

Embroideries (graphic novels)
Marjane Satrapi

After lunch, the men go off to nap while the women clean up and gather around the samovar for tea and talk. Hear the stories of these individuals as they talk about their sex lives. Arranged marriages, virginity and faking, old men after young girls, satisfaction and frustration. A remarkable blend of humor and revelation.

Moon Called
Patricia Briggs

Mercy Thompson is a shape-shifting coyote caught up in deadly struggle among werewolves.

Orange Cheeks
Jay O’Callahan, illustrated by Patricia Raine (children)

Four and a half year old Willie loves to visit Grandma in Cambridge, and he was trying his best to be extra good. In spite of his best efforts he gets into trouble– what will happen?

Told by a master story-teller.

Things Will Never Be the Same
Howard Waldrop

Waldrop researches obscure subjects in depth, and then writes unique short stories which are real gems. My favorite in this collection is “Wild, Wild Horses”, about a special equine in ancient Rome.

Benjamin Franklin’s Numbers
Paul C Pasles

Benjamin Franklin is recognized for many key contributions in science, but not so much in mathematics, aside from some magic squares mentioned in his autobiography. The writer explores the mathematical side of Franklin, from his paper on population growth that influenced Malthus, to problems included in Poor Richard’s Almanac, to his moral algebra claimed to influence the utilitarianism of Bentham. Pasles does a neat bit of historical research to find improved magic squares created by Franklin overlooked for generations, and explores the many wonderful symmetries of his magic squares and magic circles, and delves into how they were created.

Persepolis 2
Marjane Satrapi

The author escapes the turmoil of Iran to become a student in Austria in 1984. Without family and friends near, she must work out living arrangements and find friends among people of very different backgrounds than her own. She finds some kindness, but also false friends that ultimately cause great harm. After a particularly bad episode she returns to Iran, and discovers how her brief experience in the West creates a chasm with family and friends.

Three Men in a Boat
Jerome K Jerome

A tale of three buffoons on a trip up the Thames written with a dry elegant turn of phrase, with many flashbacks and twisty turns of narration. Must inevitably be compared with Wodehouse today.

Crooked Little Vein
Warren Ellis

Michael McGill, barely surviving as a Manhattan detective and bad luck magnet, is approached by the Chief of Staff to the President to obtain a Constitution written in secret by founding fathers, which will grant special powers to the owner. Accompanied by Trix, a doctoral student of kinkiness, McGill journeys from one depraved character to another in search of his goal.

Funny, snort-whiskey-out-the-nose hilarity in places, a commentary on alternative lifestyles and so-called majorities. Echoes of Hunter S Thompson.

Privilege of the Sword
Ellen Kushner

Alec, now Duke Tremontaine, avoids appearance of politics like his mentor the late Duchess, adopting a public air of decadence and unpredictable behavior earning the appellation Mad Duke. He secretly thwarts Lord Ferris and other foes with a plentitude of schemes. The Duke arranges his niece Katherine to be trained in the sword and take her place in society uniquely prepared to defend her own honor, unlike her friend Lady Artemesia who must rely upon family.

Fires of the Faithful
Naomi Kritzer

Eliana studies violin at a music conservatory, sheltered from the conflicts resulting from the Circle imposing a new religion, violently suppressing any traces of the old. When she discovers a terrible secret about the mage abilities available in small part to anyone, and concentrated in certain powerful individuals, she embarks on a path that holds many perils.

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe’s husband Mr JLB Matekoni investigates his own case, Mma Makutsi has a falling-out with her employer, and the investigator resolves a case at a hospital by using mercy.

The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two
Anu Garg

Light-hearted tour of nifty words. Chapters include words derived from Dickens novels, people, and myths. Humor is key. Scattered throughout are word-related riddles: “What is the longest word that doesn’t repeat a letter?”

Garrison Keillor

Keillor expands his familiar pontoon tale into a full novel. When Evelyn dies, her will specifies her ashes should be placed in a bowling ball and dropped in the middle of Lake Wobegon. Her daughter Barbara is determined to honor her wishes, setting the stage for an eventful day.

We were delighted to hear a shorter version of the story at a fundraising show at Popejoy: thirty minute monolog, no notes, no teleprompter, just Garrison’s deep voice.

Flesh and Spirit
Carol Berg

Valen is a pureblood mage, with a learning disorder misunderstood by his imperious family, causing him to escape and hide for years disguised as a normal.

The Thief youth fic
Megan Whalen Turner

Gen is a young thief languishing in prison, until the King’s magus has him released for a secret mission to steal an ancient treasure linked to the fate of nations. The magus and Gen journey with Pol, faithful experienced professional soldier, his charge Saphos, and the mage’s student Ambiades.

Gen is mouthy and proud, appealing to a young reader, and in a surprise twist we discover all is not as it appears.

Rudy Rucker

Jeff Luty wants to convert the matter of Earth into “nants”, running a simulation of virtual Earth. He is thwarted by Ond Lutter, who deploys an ophid mesh network every few mm apart, which allows a ubiquitous network and enhances abilities of the individual. Everything changes. The singularity causes unforeseen side-effects, such as the discovery of a parallel universe, or brane, some of whose inhabitants have been secretly traveling to our Earth. Teleportation and ophid spam and emergent intelligences also arise. A band of homeless young counter-culture drifters, the Big Pig Posse, including meta-novelist Thuy, amateur physicist Jayjay, and physics gamer Sonic, get drawn into the center of action to thwart Luty’s plans to hack the orphidnet and release his nants.

Major characters in Rucker novels tend towards precipitous actions, unrequited loves, self-destructive behavior, at the expense of in-depth characterization with subtle nuance. Sometimes one notices the writer’s puppet strings. Big original ideas make this a must-read in spite of character quirks.

The Sandbox
Intro by G B Trudeau, edited by David Stanford

Collects some of the best USA soldier mil-blog entries of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts.

Marjane Satrapi

Deeply personal memoir of a teenager growing up during the Iranian Revolution of early 1980s. The stories of friends and family bring the vast events into proximity, telling of Ramin in school whose father worked for the Savak, two friends of the family released from the Shah’s prisons only to be persecuted by revolutionaries, her own encounter with the Guardians of the Revolution, Women’s Branch, after buying bootleg rock cassettes. The powerful conclusion to this set of stories will stay with reader.

Black and white illustrations are remarkably effective, with clean minimalist form, almost iconic, good use of white lines on black, crowd scenes often using tiled images with a nod to ancient Islamic art.

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians
Brandon Sanderson

Drifting through various foster homes, Alcatraz Smedry discovers on his thirteenth birthday that he is a powerful occulator, and that he really lives in Hushland controlled by an organization of tyrannical librarians intent on keeping the truth from citizens. With Grandpa Smedry and young warrior Bastille, Alcatraz takes on the Dark Occulator.

Similar to Series of Unfortunate Events.

Empire of Ivory
Naomi Novik

Captain Laurence and his dragon Temeraire must travel to a distant colony in search of a cure for an illness incapacitating all British dragons, before Napoleon discovers the island is undefended by air. They discover why no explorer has returned from the heart of Africa. Finally, the duo must make a difficult choice between country and dragonkind.

Reads very much like the Master and Commander series.

The End of America
Naomi Wolf

Democracy has a “failure-mode” (my term) to a fascist shift to a closed society. Ten steps for a fascist shift include:

  • Invoke an external and internal threat,
  • establish secret prisons,
  • develop a paramilitary force,
  • surveil ordinary citizens,
  • infiltrate citizens groups,
  • arbitrarily detain and release citizens,
  • target key individuals,
  • restrict the press,
  • cast criticism as “espionage” and dissent as “treason”,
  • subvert the rule of law.

The writer explores this process in a historical context, particularly Germany in 1930s and Italy in 1920s, and gives many examples how the Bush administration is using the same tactics, often with hauntingly similar rhetoric.

The Quitter
Harvey Pekar, art by Dean Haspiel

A working-class Jewish kid in Cleveland stumbles through life, alternating between insecurity and goofing off and angry outbursts, floating from job to crummy job. Finally Pekar understands his mind works differently from others, and lands a stable if unchallenging job, giving him time to pursue writing. Gritty, honest, real.

Related Posts: What We Have Read 7, 6, 5, 4

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