Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin

Mr. Waitzkin was a chess prodigy, about whom a book, Searching for Bobby Fisher, was written by his dad in 1988. It became a movie in 1993. As a young adult, Mr. Waitzkin moved from chess to martial arts, competing in Tai Chi's push hands tournaments (a large part of this book), and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The conceit of this book is that Mr. Waitzkin can extrapolate from his experiences as a world class chess player and world class martial arts competitor to provide lessons about learning. Hence the title.

As an auto-biography, it is interesting although rather repetitive. As an instructional text, it is so far from useful as to be a zero.

So if you're curious about Mr. Waitzkin, then by all means read this (preferably by borrowing it from a free public library). If you want to learn about learning techniques, how to gain excellence in a field, etc., just cross this title off your list now. (The latter was my motivation for reading the book, and the reason for my poor reaction to it.)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Black Widow, by Daniel Silva

I was pretty negative the last book of Mr. Silva's that I read, complaining that the lead character, Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, was too long in the tooth and that the writing had gone downhill. With this novel, all is forgiven. Allon is back, age appropriate, in an interesting story that reflects today's headlines.

The plot considers the impact of western, recently converted Muslims who join forces with ISIS. And the terrorist attacks that these folks can facilitate. Not to mention taking a few dings at the US President's use of the phase "jay vee team" to describe ISIS; clearly Israelis and some of their neighbors would not take comfort in that dismissive description.

All in all a great book. To continue the series, I suspect that Allon will become less of the main character: he'll move into a more supervisory position, and Mr. Silva will need to choose a new spy to become the lead story. I look forward to his next novel to see how he does move forward.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn, by Ace Atkins

I'd thought Spenser, the hero crime investigator of a terrific series of novels, was gone with Mr. Parker's death in 2010. But Mr. Atkins has managed to not only continue the series, but to do it brilliantly.

In this one, Spenser works on a series of arson cases to help a firefighter buddy. He gets into a tangle with a nasty crime boss. Just a normal Spenser novel, and super fun to read.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Fourth Horseman, by David Hagberg

This novel was a bit more nuanced that the prior in Mr. Hagberg's series, which is to say mediocre but tolerable.

Computer genius doing things beyond comprehension. Our spy hero doing things beyond comprehension. Senior government officials doing things at rapid pace. Not very credible. But just interesting enough to read to the end. As a library book (i.e., free), for a long airplane trip (i.e., when you're bored), it will do.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, by Penn Jillette

Mr. Jillette is best known as a fabulous magician in his show with Teller. This autobiography focuses on his realization that poor health -- in his case, really scary bad poor health -- was due to his obesity and his embrace of the Standard American Diet.

With help from Ray Cronise (who is referred to as CrayRay, as in crazy, i.e., cray-cray), Mr. Jillette jump starts his weight loss by first breaking his addiction to sugar, oil, and salt, by eating only potatoes. Eventually, he adds the components of a whole food plant based diet free of sugar, oil, and salt. Essentially everything folks like Dr. Alan Goldhamer, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Dean Ornish, and many others have been writing and speaking about for years. Mr. Jillette didn't look to them, but rather to a hobbyist (no offense to Mr. Cronise). Fortunately, the hobbyist was on a solid base to give advice.

An important note: Mr. Jillette can't make it through a paragraph without some level of profanity. If that bothers you, don't even open the book. Also, he makes it pretty clear that he's on Withings payroll - a maker of wifi attached scales that garner mixed reviews on Amazon. Consequently, he pushes them hard.

But all that can be forgiven in this very entertaining book.

Oh, when you get to recipes, keep going. They are tucked into the middle of the book; back to the narrative in just a few pages.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dr. DOA, by Simon Green

When I picked this off the library shelf I recalled having read another of Mr. Green's novels, but didn't recall how I had felt about it. Oops.

This was interesting enough for me to slog through it. I was confused most of the time.

I guess I liked it. But I don't have the energy to summarize this book.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Pleasure Trap, by Doug Lisle

This is a must-read book for anyone who has read a headline about an "obesity epidemic" and wondered why. It has its flaws -- in particular, it is a bit on the wordy side, even though it is a thin book. But still worth reading.

The authors start by explaining that all creatures are motivated to reproduce, gain pleasure, and avoid exertion. Then they explain satiety: the notion that how much an animal eats is automatically regulated by fullness indicators. This includes humans of course. With this simple and clear background under our belts, we move to the really interesting part.

It turns out that our response to certain foods precisely mimics our response to addictive drugs. An aside: the absolute best way to understand Dr. Lisle's point here is to watch one of his videos; I suggest his 2012 TEDxFremont talk at

Whether you see yourself reading this book or not, that video is really worthwhile. Watch it. Its discussion is actually much clearer (at least to me) than the book's.

An interesting comment in the book about the addictive nature of some food components (e.g., salt, sugar, fat): "Most people think that if they were to consume a diet of whole natural foods, they would not enjoy their food - or their lives. Indeed, most believe that they would suffer if they consumed a health-promoting diet. Like those addicted to drugs, they cannot imagine a better life, free from the drug-like effects of magic food."

Let's imagine this book convinced you to change your food composition to one less unhealthy. How would you deal with the skepticism of colleagues, friends, and family? The authors provide strategies to help deal with this effectively and kindly. (There's also another video from Dr. Lisle on social disapproval.)

They also address what they call the "myth of moderation." I guess you wouldn't tell a chain smoker to only smoke a couple of packs on the weekend. Or a drug addict to only get high on Saturdays. Their model of addiction to specific food components motivates these analogies.

Bottom line: great book. Also search for Dr. Lisle's videos online; they're usually interesting and amusing.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Investing at Level3, by James Cloonan

James B. Cloonan is the founder and chairman of AAII, a nonprofit organization providing support, education and information to individuals who manage their own investments or who wish to more closely oversee their advisers.

In "Investing at Level3," Cloonan rails against virtually all the beliefs of current theory and practice, claiming that: 
  • It is very possible to exceed the average market returns.
  • Volatility is not an appropriate measure of risk for the long-term investor.
  • Much of asset allocation and diversification is not a 'free lunch' and is overdone at great expense. His book is, at this time, available only through the AAII website.
As to his points, I agree with him on volatility. If you're a "buy and hold" investor with a time frame of 10 years or longer, then the markets ups and downs don't really matter. Risk is defined as the likelihood you'll have the capital you expect when you want it (at some future long term date), not as the perturbations of the market that won't cause you to sell anyways.

I also could imagine agreeing on diversification: the price you pay for adding bonds to an equity portfolio is that you lower the total yield. People do this for the relative lack of volatility in bonds or for the predictable income stream. But if you believe that in the long haul equities will outperform bonds, then Dr. Cloonan is correct. In the US, from 1926 through 2015, stocks gained 9.9%/year and bonds 5.2%. The volatility measure that Dr. Cloonan disdains was 19%/year for stocks and 6% for bonds. Further, the peak to trough draw down in stocks hit 80% and bonds only 16%.

Yet there have been periods of time when bonds have outperformed equities. In the 20 year period 1929 to 1949, and the 40 year period 1969 to 2009, stocks under-performed bonds. Dr. Cloonan doesn't discuss this.

The tough part for me is the first claim, of out-performance, and that is entirely because of the numbers he throws around. Dr. Cloonan claims you can expect a 12% annual return with his passive strategy, and perhaps 17% with his active approach. Further, his expectation of "safe" investments as a mix-in, including Treauries or CDs, is 4% annual return. Credibility shot, on the ground, not able to move.

As of this writing, the definition of risk free return, US 10 year Treasuries, pay 1.57%. CDs can provide a touch more, perhaps 1.6%. Far from 4%. If Dr. Cloonan had provided a bridge between real market conditions and his claim, then perhaps things would make sense. He didn't.

Okay, so in spite of Dr. Cloonan's distinguished background, he set himself up for less credibility than even the inane talking heads on cable financial news shows. Does he have anything to offer?
  • Individual investors with a long term (10+ year) horizon may safely ignore the volatility of the market, and are psychologically better off doing that.
  • A market cap weighted approach to ETFs is less useful in the long term than equal weighting, and Dr. Cloonan pushes the Guggenheim S&P 500 Equal Weight ETF (RSP), and to a lesser extent the PowerShares Russell 1000 Equal Weight Portfolio (EQAL). In fact the data do support that equal weighting (RSP) outperforms cap weighting (SPY). On the other hand, the amount of draw down is also higher in equal weighting, presumably because small cap stocks are more subject to over-reaction in bear markets. In 2008-2009's bear market, RSP was down more than 10% more than SPY. On the other hand, as Dr. Cloonan points out, so what: hold on and you'll do fine in the long term (recovery).
  • Instead of looking at market drops against peak (the definition of "draw down"), Dr. Cloonan suggests one look at drops against expectation. To his example, if your expectation is his 12% return on equities, and the market has run up - giving you a 40% return, and then drops a lot, as long as you're current value is equal to or greater than your expectation line, you're doing great. This seems like a great psychological tool to help people from panic during inevitable draw downs.
  • You can make more than 12% annually over the long haul - that's the "passive" approach for lazy investors. But wait a moment: is that even remotely reasonable? Most folks whom I respect (e.g., Meb Faber, but really there are very many) expect 4-5% net growth over the next five+ years. So let's say that's because they are large cap focused (yes, Faber is actually a world view value balanced with trend guy, so he's already optimizing, but let it go for now), they're missing the better performance of small caps. Is it reasonable to expect this kind of doubled performance outcome? Either the folks who expect more moderate long term growth are dead wrong, or Dr. Cloonan is out on a limb. And given the absence of any commentary in his book supporting the big numbers, and already low credibility, well... you know the answer.
So what to make of this? My takeaway is simple: replace some market cap ETF holdings with equal weighted holdings like RSP, because the long term performance might be superior, if one can withstand the impact of an out-sized draw down over time. The rest of it? Might be brilliant, but might be hogwash, and this book doesn't make it easy to discern.

Unprocessed, by Chef AJ

I bought this book for the recipes; they are SOS free. Which is to say, no sugar, oil, or salt.

Why no sugar? It is addictive, has no nutritional value, and has many calories. That's obvious to everyone. But sugary treats taste good. I'm assured that over time I'll get past the addictive nature of sugar.

Why no salt? It is also addictive, affects blood pressure, and according to Jeff Novick, has been associated with "stomach cancer, osteoporosis, edema, gastro-esophageal reflux disease, headache, angina, left ventricular hypertrophy, arteriosclerosis, and autoimmune problems."

Why no oil? It is extremely calorie dense, and ... well, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr MD of the Cleveland Clinic says it best in this video.

Anyway, it turns out that before getting to the cookbook, Chef AJ has a brief personal story about her path towards a plant-based whole food approach to eating and cooking, and why she omits sugar, oil, and salt from her recipes. This section was interesting and engaging.

I've yet to try the recipes but having read through a few, I'm optimistic.  Also, the author shares information on her web page,

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Skinner, by Charlie Huston

This novel was difficult to read as Mr. Huston's writing style was just unpleasant. Seemingly endless amount of deliberate absence of clarity. The plot was interesting though. Not a great book.