Sunday, December 30, 2007

F.I.A.S.C.O. - Blood in the Water on Wall Street, by Frank Partnoy

This book describes the use of derivatives in the mid-1990s, especially at Morgan Stanley which is not painted in any attractive colors.  There is a bit of mention of CDOs which have been the very recent instrument of financial destruction on Wall Street.

It is not really dated in any way:  everything about the portrait of derivatives applies to the current mortgage-based derivatives. 

Makes you wonder though why pension funds and investors continue to do business with firms who so obviously are "ripping their faces off."

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Phython Phrasebook, by Brad Dayley

As I noted in an earlier post, I've been teaching myself to program in Python.  I'd originally expressed only disdain for Python, on the grounds that a real programming language wouldn't rely on spacing as a scoping mechanism.  I was wrong.

It took a while for me to realize that I was wrong. It takes a while to overcome the prejudices of being a long-time C programmer.  I really like Python now, even more than Perl.

So to this book:  you'd expect that as a reference guide it would be something I'd refer to while programming yet not really read cover to cover.  Sort of a small version of the snake book (see my post on Python in a Nutshell).  But really, it is both.  A reference and a cover-to-cover read.

I picked this up on a whim while shopping at Borders and I'm glad I did.  It isn't a complete method for learning Python (but then again, neither is a purported learning book like Learning Python - yuck - for which my negative post will come later).   But it is a darned good start, a light read, and a great approach.  Phrases of programming are a perfect metaphor.

Python in a Nutshell, by Alex Martelli

The O'Reilly series of "in a nutshell" books are reliably useful.  I've had books from this series on my shelf for a very long time; I couldn't program sed and awk without the book.

So when I set out to teach myself Python during my end of year vacation, I figured I'd need this reference. 

Can't really say I've read it - more appropriate to say that in the course of the programs I've been writing to learn Python, I've paged through most of this book.   It isn't the sort of thing I can read cover to cover.  Unlike the Python Phrasebook which I highly recommend (see separate entry).

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Power of Nice, by Linda Thaler & Robin Koval

The subtitle of this little book is "how to conquer the business world with kindness."  Far from being a sugary sweet story of singing kumbaya in board meetings, the authors paint a reasonable picture of the value of courtesy and kindness in the work-place. 

Their fundamental assertion is that "life is not a zero-sum game."  They make a compelling argument.  If I ran a firm and needed an advertising agency, I'd absolutely ask the Kaplan Thaler Group to pitch, just based on this book.

Much to my surprise, this book gets a thumbs-up and not a bah-humbug.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss

This is actually three intertwined books: one about setting up a web-based marketing business. How to identify a market niche and satisfy it at low volumes by reselling someone else's product or your own expertise. There were interesting ideas here, and a great section on outsourcing routine tasks to virtual assistants (e.g., in India).

Another is about travel, or as Ferriss might put it, retirement as a job choice. My only complaint here is that he assumed that every reader's definition of retirement delight includes international travel. Personally, I'm traveled out - give me some local down-time for my virtual retirement... whenever that happens.

Speaking of virtual retirement, that's his third book.  The notion is that one behave as though retired (time for hobbies, fun, travel, enjoyment, whatever works for you) even during their "working years" instead of deferring all the good stuff for later.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

for one more day, by Mitch Albom

This short novel is of the same ilk as "Tuesdays with Morrie," also by Albom: touching, focused on the importance of relationships and making the most out of our time together.

It wasn't too mushy and kept my interest throughout.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie

A worthwhile read, although I was misdirected to it. A NPR special on books involving dogs aired about a year ago, and this Pulitzer Prize winning novel was on their list. So I expected a dog to have a lead role. That is not the case.

I'm glad to have read it though.

Deep Simplicity: bringing order to chaos and complexity, by John Gribbin

Gribbin's book was just okay.  I had higher hopes for it.  Then again, it is difficult to do a great job when you're surveying a broad spectrum of the sciences.  The unifying theme of the book is chaos, but wasn't well achieved:  this was a series of singles with nary a home run in sight.

It would have helped if there were a clearly stated goal for each chapter - some roadmap to indicate how the sometimes random topics were actually leading somewhere.

Further, the depth of discussion was spotty.  Gribbin jumped into details the lay reader would be unlikely to understand and there were several forward references - poorly described notions revisited in later pages, sometimes clearing things up, but sometimes not.

I don't recommend this book, but I didn't hate it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Unread: The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

Well, I tried. A friend lent me his copy of this first book of the series. Having seen the advertisements for the upcoming movie of this name, I thought I'd read the series before seeing it.

Made it to page 62 before giving up. I don't generally prefer this sort of story, but this seems worse than most. It was just too painful for me to continue to the end.

And so, it joins the ranks of the tried, but unread.

Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher

This is a small, easy to read book which provides powerful messages about how to negotiate agreements. The principled negotiation method comprises four techniques: separate the people from the problem, focus on interests not positions, invent options for mutual gain, and insist on using objective criteria.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

One Ranger: A Memoir, by H. Joaquin Jackson

This is a fun book! Ranger Jackson describes an era of Texas law enforcement that we've left years ago, and it is a captivating read.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It's Okay To Be The Boss, by Bruce Tulgan

A very fast read, almost a (long) magazine article. A key message notion, although not particularly developed in the book, is that the recent years' emphasis on leadership over management in corporate training may have derailed things.

Folks go to leadership training but for most of us the idea of being the next Meg Whitman or Winston Churchill is so distant as to be unfathomable. So we leave leadership training neither leaders nor managers. Tulgan's point is to pick up on the management part.

Having said that, his view of management seems to me to be mostly about setting standards and holding people accountable to those standards.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Poor Charlie's Almanack, by Charles Munger

What a lollapalooza of a book! Some particularly amusing excerpts:

"How to be happy, get rich, and other advice" [p137]
- "Just avoid things like AIDs situations, racing trains to the crossing, and doing cocaine. Develop good mental habits. If your new behavior earns you a little temporary unpopularity with your peer group, then the hell with them." Then, be satisfied with what you have, and beware of envy.

On how to find a good spouse: "The best single way is to deserve a good spouse because a good spouse is by definition not nuts."

"Practical thought about practical thought" [p279]
1) "... it is usually best to simplify problems by deciding big 'no-brainer' questions first."
2) Deal with math: "Without numerical fluency, in the part of life most of us inhabit, you are like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest."
3) Start with the end in mind; think about problems in reverse.
4) "... the best and most practical wisdom is elementary academic wisdom." You need not be a deep specialist, but you must apply systems thinking - "think in a multidisciplinary manner."
5) Really big effects come from large combinations of factors, not a single thing.

Quotes Demosthenes [p326]: "What a man wishes, he will believe."

Geometric progressions [p366]: "I will give you one of the following... $1,000 per day for 30 days... Alternatively, ... a penny on day one, double it on day two, double the resulting sum again on day three, and continue doubling your holdings for 30 days, but you may not spend a single cent until the 30th day has passed." Take $30,000 or take $5,368,709.12 ?

BTW, was quite surprised to find a typo - in a sub-heading no less! - on page 32 [expanded 2nd edition 2006].

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie

At the end, ask yourself: was the seamstress' heart lacking in sincerity?