Sunday, 28 June 2009

A new rebirth of wonder

I've been getting some really great, if perplexing, spam lately. This latest one appears to have been concocted to mash up bits of famous poetry. And it's pretty good.

I quote the email in its entirety:
or think on him who bore thy name, proverbs of hell.
i told my wrath, my wrath did end. and i am waiting for lovers and weepers
It's unclear what they're trying to sell me, but never mind that. For those unfamiliar with the metric, it's written in what I've identified as a BBBF rhyme scheme: Blake, Blake, Blake, Ferlinghetti.

Here's where the pieces come from:

  • "Or think on him who bore thy name" -- William Blake, "Night"
  • "Proverbs of hell" is a section of Blake's (prose) "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"
  • "I told my wrath, my wrath did end" -- Blake, "A Poison Tree"
  • "And I am waiting for lovers and weepers" -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "I Am Waiting"

The one bone I have to pick with the creators of this strange automaton is its lack of typographical consistency. So herewith I have retranscribed the poem, and taken the liberty of retitling as well:

I Am Waiting in a Poison Tree for the Night Marriage of Heaven and Hell
by Lawrence Blake III

Or think on him who bore thy name,
Proverbs of Hell! I told my wrath:
My wrath did end --
And I am waiting for lovers and weepers.

There, that's better.

Labels: ,

Sunday, 4 January 2009

2008 book reviews (the year, not the number of books)

2008 has been a work-intensive year for me so my reading list comes nowhere near the mark of Aaron Schwartz's 100 books.  Do I get points for reading most copies of The Economist, and certainly all four quarterly issues of Genealogists' Magazine?  (Well, nerd points, at least.)

The best are linked to Amazon.

1. Affluenza, by Oliver James.  See my previous partial review here.  An interesting read but not entirely convincing.  "Rich people aren't necessarily happy" isn't that earth-shattering of a thesis, I have to say.

2. Armageddon in Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut.  Vonnegut was my first literary hero, but his relevance waned in later life as he was hit with what I can only describe as Crotchety Old Man syndrome, and seemed to merely reiterate his earlier themes.  So I was really quite astounded at the quality of this collection of unpublished works on war and soldiers (some set in WW2, some in fictional realities).  Easily as good as his classic short story collections like Canary in a Cathouse.

3. The Assize of the Dying, by Ellis Peters.  This is two novellae, the title story and Aunt Helen.  I like Peters' Cadfael material immensely and thought I'd try some of her other work.  These early tales are probably for devoted fans only; though readable, they're not particularly well crafted.

4. Cobweb, by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George.  This is Neal Stephenson's writing style applied to a Tom Clancy-esque plot about biowarfare.  A good read though not essential.

5. The English, by Jeremy Paxman.  I haven't actually finished this one.  It's interesting enough, but nowhere near as good as Kate Fox's Watching the English.  It's probably more interesting if you're actually English yourself, and are heavily invested in that identity (which the author seems to be).

6. Martian Time-Slip, by Philip K. Dick.  A mentally ill Mars-born boy sees dead people.  Well, sort of.  I had never really read much PKD and picked out a few titles to see what all the fuss was about.  This may not be his best but it's still fascinating.

7. The Men Who Stare At Goats, by Jon Ronson.  Very well done investigation of the more bizarre side of military research at the CIA and elsewhere, with important connections to torture practices in the Iraq war.  My only complaint is that Ronson fails to tie it all together; he is happy to leave it with "look at the damage these crazy theories can do", without looking at the power structures that enable them to prosper and mutate.

8. Mike's Election Guide 2008, by Michael Moore.  Amusing, but nothing more than an airplane flight read.  Now that Obama's in, what will he complain about?  (I'm sure he'll find something...)

9. A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, by Ellis Peters.  A bit better from Peters, though it does read a bit like a Hardy Boys novel of beachside mystery adventure.  But hey, I love Hardy Boys.

10. Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  I just got this and read it right after Christmas.  It's very well done and heartily recommended.  Gladwell has a great gift for pulling together other work and research into a single coherent thread.  Outliers' premise is simple: the self-made man is a myth.  His logic is devastating.  I had come to this conclusion myself previously, but this book actually made me a lot less angry about it, and more appreciative of the opportunities I have had in life.

11. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions, by Dan Ariely.  I didn't finish this book, though I had high hopes for it (see "The Undercover Economist").  His points just aren't that compelling.

12. Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives, Richard Wiseman.  This is a survey of social experiments that Wiseman and others have been involved in, and has some parallels with the excellent book Influence.  Wiseman's examples, though, suffer from being a bit too mainstream, like finding out what's the funniest joke (his conclusion, as mine, is that he found the blandest joke in the world that translates across cultures).  On the whole, not as quirky as it could be.

13. Radical Forgiveness: Making Room for the Miracle, by Colin C. Tipping.  This is a sort of manifesto of living by Tipping, who puts on seminars on various topics.  Overall I think it's a useful viewpoint, though I tend to disagree with some of his premises.  To be read with an open mind.

14. Rules Britannia: The 101 Essential Questions of Britishness Answered, From How to Keep a Stiff Upper Lip to Who Ate All the Pies, by Rohan Candappa.  This is really just a joke book, but the lengthy treatment of the origin and usage of the "Who Ate All the Pies" football chant was illuminating.  For a book that purports to help one understand Britishness, it is unfortunately a bit in-jokey.  E.g., I still don't know who or what Rabbie Burns is.

15. Scandals, Vandals, and Da Vincis: A Gallery of Remarkable Art Tales, by Harvey Rachlin.  I only read part of it, but wasn't overly impressed by its remarkable-ness.  It seemed more Anecdotal than anything.

16. The Second Messiah: Templars, the Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry, by Christopher Knight.   A fun conjectural read in the vein of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but both better strung together and less easily dismissable than that.

17. The Space Merchants, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth.  Surprisingly relevant socioeconomic satire from the true masters of the genre.  Originally published in 1953, it's both fun and thought-provoking.

18. Spook Country, William Gibson.  Gibson is damn good, and though this isn't necessarily his best, it's still better than most novels out there, period.  This one's about something like location-based services, nuclear spies and counterspies, and Sino-Cuban freerunners.  If you like its genre, you'll like the book; if not, it may not convince you.

19. Tales of the Country Eccentrics, by Tom Quinn.  I picked this up in the charity shop.  It's a selection of brief anecdotes about strange English countryfolk doing strange things.  Fun.

20. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by Philip K. Dick.  An alien civilization introduces a mind-altering drug that makes people hallucinate fantasy lives that revolve around a Barbie-like play set produced by the protagonists corporation.  What's not to like?

21. The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford.  A brilliant dissection of how to apply basic economic theory to everyday life.  It helped connect a lot of dots for me, and it's written in a very readable style that reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell.  My only complaint is that the author is a bit too enthralled by the invisible hand, offering it as a solution even when lacking proof points.  Overall, highly recommended.  (Note: the U.S. subtitle, "Why the Rich are Rich and the Poor are Poor," makes it sounds a lot more confrontational and Republican-rhetorical than it actually is).

22. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, by Dan Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams.  I didn't get very far into this as it seemed, well, kind of obvious.  If you're a businessperson and want to know what all this fuss about "the wikis" are, it might be a useful primer.

23. The Will and the Deed, by Ellis Peters.  Another early Peters effort, this one based around a crash-landed plane and a crime of opportunity in the Austrian alps.  Farfetched but a fun whodunnit nonetheless.  (For those of you who can't stand the term "whodunnit", all I can say is this book sort of fits the tag.)

24. You Don't Need a Title to Be a Leader, Mark Sanborn.  Absolute shit.

25.  50 Facts You Need to Know: USA, by Stephen Fender.  I'm not sure I read all 50 facts, but there were some interesting ones there.  This is designed for Brits with misconceptions about America (e.g. regarding the prevalence of cowboys).

So there you go.  That's all I can recall, at least, having rummaged through my bookshelves.  Maybe this year I'll also get through some of the (previously posted on B5J)  books I (for the most part still) haven't read yet.  We'll see.

Labels: ,

Sunday, 14 December 2008


This year I decided to divest some of our book collection. It was a difficult mental undertaking -- even though these are books we for the most part hadn't read, wouldn't read, and didn't care to read, they were still books, after all. Most were in pretty good shape, having been, oftentimes, gifts from well intentioned relatives. Others were the losers in the duplicate-comparison process, and probably should have been released to the wilds when Sarah and I first merged our libraries more than a decade ago. But these things take time, particularly when you're as lethargic and neurotic as I am.

We took a few passes through the shelves and came up with about 180 titles (out of 2000 or so) that, in our most somber reflection, we could potentially, possibly see ourselves living without, though the sacrifice might be great. "MS-DOS Advanced Programming", "Scentsational Weight Loss (A New, Easy, Natural Way to Control Your Appetite)", two extra copies of "Corduroy" -- apparently whenever my mother-in-law saw a copy of this, she had to buy it for us -- they all went on the list.

I considered giving these all away to charity immediately, but had several conflicting thoughts. First of all, most of these titles were for a fairly niche audience, and I just couldn't see them flying off the shelves at the local Oxfam. Some were actually valuable enough that it seemed worth looking for a buyer. And finally, if I dumped them all off at a shop, what would they think of me, looking through the titles? All told, this seemed like a dangerous idea.

So I decided to list them on Amazon. This was a tedious process that took an hour or two over several days and weeks. A friend who sells used books professionally gave me his estimate: provided you list your books for the lowest price or something similar, one quarter will go within three months, one quarter will go within six months, one quarter will go within a year, and the last quarter is unlikely to sell at all.

So far, that has been roughly the case. I first listed items in May, and at the moment I've sold 71 books, have 92 for sale, and gave up on about a dozen that had a glut of one-cent copies on the market ("Mars and Venus in the Bedroom", I'm looking at you) -- those ones did make it to the charity shop. Amazon forces you to re-list after three months, so I think I'll give them all two listings apiece (I've been lazy about relisting a few), and then cart off the remaining turkeys.

Through the process I've become pretty good at being able to tell from the size and weight of a book how much it will cost to ship. Under a certain size they qualify for "small packet" rate here in the UK, which is about half the price as a larger package. Amazon pays a flat fee toward shipping, regardless of the size, so judging this right is the key to knowing when you can price something at 50p versus £2.00 in order to not lose money.

The main investment has been our time -- ordering packing materials, keeping track of orders, printing online postage, and so on. Every book sold takes about 30 minutes to process, package and ship, typically, so you could make a good case that it's not worth my time for the miniscule profits I make from each sale (there have been a few that have netted more than £10, but the average is probably about a pound in profit after accounting for Amazon's fees, postage and packaging). On the other hand, there's a certain satisfaction, not just in slowly paring down the boxes of books set aside for sale, but also in knowing that someone is getting the book they wanted. It's like knowing your litter of kittens is going to good homes.

The other good news? Since May, when I started selling these, we've only added 60 or so new books to our shelves. A small achievement, some might say, but for us an impressive one: a net reduction in books. All of which is, of course, a great excuse to build up my wish list for Christmas at Amazon.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The weight, and the wait

I've been afraid all day. The same palpable fear and impotent rage I felt when the votes were counted (or not counted, whichever) in 2004, the sense of the inevitability of a script that I have no power to edit, nor even fast-forward. That I have to live this out, stage by excruciating stage, not knowing the details but knowing how, in general, the story will proceed.

Things are, of course, as they always were; the sins of the few are visited upon the many (slowly, drop by drop). With a whimper not a bang, as they say.

This is, some will say, how they want me to feel (the nebulous They, the conceit of a Powers That Be), but there is no They and I am but small-cased me, one more in the soul chaos, destiny soup. A small ball of dark matter spiraling ever outward in this vacuum. I am not powerless, but I know my power, and it is simply time multiplied by consciousness; consciousness at the ready for a chance. Even if the chance does not come, the consciousness is its own light. But I hope -- I hope, says the Shawshank narrator -- that the chance will come.

Be well. Keep your eyes open.

Monday, 22 September 2008

The terrorists made Wall Street suck

Good grief. Now Wall Street "insiders" are claiming that short selling last week was due to none other than Al Qaeda. "A massive coordinated attack from London and Dubai" on the anniversary of 9/11? Begging your pardon, but isn't it more likely that other investment banks (with their own losses to cover) bet on the spectacular, well telegraphed nosedive that was about to occur?

Short selling can only contribute to the crash of markets that are overinflated in the first place. It can't "destroy value", whatever that means. Short sellers have to buy their shares from someone, at a fair market price, and sell them again, also at a fair market price (even naked shorts must one day cover, in theory). The companies in question have lost billions in market capitalization because the market as a whole has realised how little they are worth. (For a detailed rendition of the short-sellers-are-evil argument, see Why Short Selling Matters. Then be sure to read the comments, where it gets torn a new one six ways from Sunday.)

Terrorists my ass. Don't buy this one, people. Remember that the so-called masters of the universe go hand in hand with the masters of war. Always.

Vexation without representation

If I've parsed today's post correctly, it appears that we're not really supposed to be on the electoral roll, but we have been for the past year and three-quarters. This is the equivalent of being registered to vote, and I recall thinking it somewhat odd that I should be allowed to do so here without being a citizen. On the other hand I do pay a winceworthy amount in taxes to H.M. Revenues and such, so I sort of figured I had a vote or two coming to me. It turns out I don't unless I'm from a Commonwealth country or Europe (so the Tanzanians get to vote, but not me).

Fortunately for ethical hindsight, I was out of the country for the latest London election, but it makes me wonder how many other chumps in my situation got their vote cards and showed up at the polls. Were their votes counted? Did they predominantly vote for Boris over Ken? The notice I received today merely asked me to renew my registration, which I think was automatically created when we bought the flat here. It had a conspicuous blank for both of our nationalities. If I had just renewed without comment, would they ever have caught up with me? I pose it merely as a hypothetical.

Which reminds me, I'd better figure out how to vote by mail for the elections I can vote in. Too bad I can't pick an exciting swing state for it to count for, though, I'm stuck with oh-so-blue California, just because I happened to live there last. (I should have thought to spend a few months in Florida before leaving...)

Labels: , ,

Saturday, 20 September 2008

International finance: Epic Fail

In times like these, I find re-reading the (now regretfully silent) deconsumption blog's Timeline for Unfolding Crisis of Mankind strangely comforting. To call it prescient would be a stretch, but it helps to know that there are ways to rationalise the strange high-level narrative we find ourselves in.

I don't know, honestly, what to think of this week's government interventions (in both Britain and the U.S.) in the financial markets. If a government's chief responsibility is to improve the welfare of its people (and increasingly, the people outside its borders that its policies affect), then the only question is whether to put the long-term consequences to society before or after the short-term benefits. The house of cards that is the global investment world is (as houses of such shoddy material are likely to be) structurally unsound. Should we reinforce those sagging cards on the back of quasi-socialist government policy (but don't call it that, let's call it, um, economic intercession), or should we let the damn thing collapse so we can build it back up from a better plan?

But people, of course, tend to act in typically Maslovian fashion (especially in a voting year, or with a ruling government on the brink of failure), and hang on to their pyramidal entitlements with passion born of primal fear. The governments know this, and know that to stay in power (and I'm not talking about Republicans vs. Democrats — Obama, for all his rhetoric, is not claiming he wants to fundamentally change the macroeconomic model the way, say, FDR was forced to), they must do their best to opiate the masses, perpetuating the belief that there is only upside.

That, indeed, is the psychological message they hope to send by outlawing short selling (a practice which, by the way, most experts agree has very little impact whatsoever on equity prices). You can't bet against a horse, you can only bet for it. Therefore, all horses will be winners! This is so counter to any market intuition that it begs credulity. Let's review: in capitalism, there are winners and losers. There have to be both, so that the market can be efficient (which has the nice side effect of creating, on the whole, fair prices for consumers). The better companies prosper, the worse (less efficient) ones fail. You can argue to what extent the recent financial paradigm has approached that ideal, but that's the concept, anyway. Restricting short selling (or indeed, any form of derivatives) will not alter this; what's needed is transparency, visibility of investments and exposure, and fierce enforcement of fraud.

I don't want people to suffer, but I also think at some point you have to tear an edifice this flawed down and build again. If spending half a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to buy back all our excesses of yesteryear (I think that qualifies as bursting one's own bubble) is the first step to something new, then I applaud it and think it's a sacrifice well taken. But if it is done under the assumption that the way of life and level of the pyramid that we are accustomed to are inviolable, then it is no more than throwing good money after bad.

Labels: , ,