Sunday, December 4, 2016

The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller

I read this book to evaluate it: would it make a useful holiday gift for some young person just starting their career? It isn't a clear winner, but I'm leaning towards saying it is.

The bad news is the good news here - the book is essentially a long motivational speech from a credible and interesting presenter. The net net is foreshadowed by the title: pick the most important thing and do it relentlessly. There's plenty more advice, albeit at an overview level, on how to execute.

If you're just starting out, or if you're not but find yourself frustrated by career, or work-life tradeoffs, or you're just looking for an edge, then this may be a good choice.

Friday, December 2, 2016

How Not to Die, by Michael Greger

This is a terrific book, albeit at times a bit overwhelming. Dr. Greger's gig is medical research into the potential to improve health and /or reduce disease through nutrition. His website, is a phenomenal resource with brief and amusing videos that summarize research on a variety of topics.

This book summarizes years of research and review into two sections: how to minimize your risk of a variety of diseases, and how to adjust your lifestyle to maximize health and minimize risk.

To be clear, Dr. Greger, like a few other medical leaders (I'm thinking folks like Dr. Alan Goldhamer, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Dean Ornish), is disruptive, pushing the current medical norms to recognize the potential of nutrition on disease.

Dr. Greger quotes Dean Ornish on this: "[he] realized reimbursement is a much more powerful determinant of medical practice than research."

Fighting consensus thinking doesn't make these folks wack-jobs: think about the history of medicine. I'll give you a couple of examples just in case you're skeptical:
In the 1700s, one woman in six died of fever after childbirth. That's a lot of dead moms. In 1795, Alexander Gordon said the fevers were infectious and could be cured. Consensus thinking said he was a fool. In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes said similar, with evidence. Ignored. Most disturbing, in 1849, Ignatz Semmelweiss showed that sanitation (physicians dipping their hands in a disinfectant between the autopsy room and the delivery room) eliminated puerperal fever entirely. You'd think that was heroic. The consensus said he was mad, not to mention a Jew, and fired him from his job. (He died in an insane asylum.)  It took until the start of the 20th century (Dr. Lister was presumably a better politician) for doctors to accept this information. There are plenty of other examples, like pellagra. But you get the idea. Just because something is "normative" in medicine doesn't mean it is best for the patients.
Of course, just because something is fringe doesn't make it good either: the key is evidence based analysis, where one accounts for motives (e.g., was a study funded by an industry with billions at stake?) and quality (e.g., was the study well run?). This is precisely Dr. Greger's specialty.

In part two of his book, Dr. Greger presents his "daily dozen:"  beans, berries, other fruits, cruciferous vegetables, greens, other vegetables, flax seeds, nuts, spices, whole grains, beverages, and exercise.

Really though, this section is a bit much. I might just not be ready to run my daily menu through a checklist.

One other complaint about Dr. Greger's work: he tends towards reduction-ism. As T. Colin Campbell points out, current research gets so engaged looking for the magic chemical (that a pharmaceutical firm can market at profit) that it forgets the holistic nature of unprocessed plant based foods. To this end, Dr. Campbell points out that researchers might notice that apples seem like healthy eating.  They notice there's vitamin A in an apple.  So they look at the health effects of vitamin A, with a goal of making a vitamin A pill that will provide the healthy effects.  Presumably without the hassle of eating the apple.  But, unfortunately, all sorts of systems get in the way of this working out the way a pill lover might like.

All in all though, this is worth reading. If nothing else, for the preface and introductory chapter.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Quantitative Momentum, by Wes Gray and Jack Vogel

This is a terrific book. As good as "DIY Financial Advisor," which was also great.

I did, however, manage to get myself all sorts of confused about which approach to measuring momentum the authors use in the book. I believe this would not have been a problem for me if two approaches to measurement hadn't been laid out early on, on page 11.

There, the authors start out saying they're going to outline what they mean by stock selection momentum. Then they define two approaches to measure momentum, time-series versus relative strength. The explanation is clear. Although the conclusion is puzzling to me, as on page 12 they say that these two approaches are often used in market-timing or asset-class selection, neither of which is the focus of the book.

But surely in this book they do measure momentum, and presumably with one or both of the two methods they just defined. So which is it? I was hoping for a summary line like this: "When we talk about measuring momentum in the rest of this book, we'll be using the {choose one of: time-series / relative strength}approach." Or, we'll use both and use words like "trend following when we use relative strength" and "generic when we use absolute," or whatever would be accurate.

I figured this would become obvious as I kept reading but I didn't come across a clear rule. Yet it must matter, since the authors bothered to define the terms. I find myself wondering, perhaps this is an OCD trigger issue for me. You're no doubt wondering the same.

On page 49, it sounds like relative strength is the approach. On page 77, the authors introduce the phrase "generic momentum" as a time-series approach. Since they earlier spent a page defining time-series and relative strength, I was really hoping they'd come back to those terms again. Now I have three terms, but I feel pretty confident that I can reduce them to two, with time-series and generic as roughly equivalent.  This was supported by "How to calculate generic momentum" on page 80. I'm not super confident though, because I kind of feel that if they wanted me to consider generic as isomorphic to absolute, they'd have said so back on pages 11/12.

Things sort of come together on page 122, where my sense is that the authors calculate generic momentum (time-series) and then use those scores to do relative strength measures against the universe of stocks. Well, whether or not that's what they meant, that's what I took out of it. Since I wasn't clear on the fundamentals from page 11 to page 122, I'm not confident that I have it right now either. And on page 172 they specifically mention time-series, but that may be to clarify the method used by the reference for that particular analysis.

In fairness, I am so much not the target audience of professional investment quants that I'm clearly not a good test subject for the readability of this minor detail within this book. But if the authors ever do another edition, in deference to the slower students, they really should consider changing the summary section on page 12 to something like this:

"You'll find that we also use the term 'generic momentum' as a synonym for time-series or absolute momentum. As you progress in this book, you'll find that we use a combination of the two (time-series and relative strength), using a time-series sort first, and then comparing the outcomes to the universe of stocks to get relative strength as the secondary measure."  [Unless this is dead wrong. Sigh.]
I'd also probably delete the sentences on page 12 that say these usually only matter to market-timing or asset-class selection which aren't the subjects of this book -- because it feels like the authors are telling the reader that they've wasted their time understanding a description of time-series and relative strength when it isn't even relevant to the book they are reading. And lead them to wonder what the authors do use.

Okay, barring that, I really loved the book!  Well written, very clear, and good examples.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

First Strike, by Ben Coes

I didn't enjoy the last book I read from this author, so I'm not quite sure how I ended up with this one. Must have been an eye-catching display at the public library. My comments on the last book were, "...suffers the typical trite memes of the "special forces operator acts as spy to save the world" genre."

Well, not much has changed. The hero is a bit less stoic, due to a love interest. But the plot suffers from ridiculous hero worship (the US President is a personal fan) and absurd plot devices (our injured hero flies directly to NY City to save the day personally, presumably because there is no other special forces operator on the planet who can do the job). Oy.

Okay, I will remember Mr. Coes and try much harder to avoid his novels so as to avoid getting all worked up.

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.