Category Archives: Nonfiction

“Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe”

Kapka Kassabova

This book is about the border region where Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey meet. It’s more reportage than travelogue and though I prefer the structure of the travelogue (e.g., “Where the West Ends” on a similar topic) I learned a lot from the book even if I didn’t care for Kassabova’s impressionistic/anecdotal approach.

These borderlands are an interesting area with a bloody, tragic history where refugees mix with people holding on to rural ways of life in the face of urbanization and assaults on the environment and where former border guards live with the memories of people they killed or captured who were trying to escape Communism. It’s also a region whose population has been churned by various forced migrations, ethnic cleansing, and coerced religious conversions.

(Hat tip and thanks to Homer’s Travels for making me aware of this book.)

“All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire”

Jonathan Abrams

This is a collection of interviews with the creators, cast, and crew of The Best TV Show Ever Made. It’s interesting reading for a fan of the show (I’ve watched the entire series twice), but it is just a collection of interviews, interviews that sometimes contradict each other and are of varying quality.

I liked it for what it was, and appreciated it as a chance to see how a collaborative work is made, but would have enjoyed it more had the author provided more of his own reporting and interpretation.

“Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain”

David Gerard

This is an entertainingly skeptical look at Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It’s the story of naive libertarians basing “currency” (yeah, right) on dodgy software architectures. What could go wrong?

The best way to summarize the book is to quote a couple of paragraphs from the conclusion:

The one constant is: new ideas in finance bring new starry-eyed naïfs, and new predators. New technologies will keep being used as an excuse to put an extra layer of flim-flam over old scams, in an ongoing historical reenactment of the reasons for each and every financial regulation.

Everything to do with cryptocurrencies and blockchains is the domain of fast-talking conmen. If anyone tries to sell you on either, … run.

“Once in Golconda”

John Brooks

This book has three interleaved narratives: a very good account of what Wall Street was like in the years leading up to and immediately after the Crash of 1929, the story of how FDR’s administration imposed regulation on the “gentlemen’s club” New York Stock Exchange, and the story of how Richard Whitney, respected exchange president, ended up in prison for embezzling money.

The story of how Wall Street worked in the early years of the 20th century and what the crash was like from the floor of the exchange was for me the most entertaining part. It was a time when investors formed “pools” and used other mostly legal (then) tricks to manipulate stock prices. You can see these same maneuvers today in the world of cryptocurrency.

Whitney’s story was sadly interesting. It reminded me a lot of the Bernie Madoff story.

A side note: this is the one thousandth post since I started this blog (then called “Reader’s Diary”) back in 2001 .

“The Money Formula”

Paul Wilmott and David Orrell

This is an interesting book on quantitative finance that is accessible to the math-impaired. It would have benefited from more real-world anecdotes. I finished it thinking that this stuff is probably too influential in the world’s markets, that a lot of the algorithms — even if properly implemented – are based on very little evidence, and that the idea that this is “science” is pretty naive.

“For the Love of Money”

Sam Polk

This book surprised me. I was expecting a Wall Street memoir like Michael Lewis’ “Liar’s Poker“, but instead it’s a story of “personal transformation”. I don’t read books like that! However, Polk’s memoir pulled me in. He came from a dysfunctional family, made a lot of money on Wall Street, acted like an all-around jerk, and decided to change into a better person. Granted, a lot of his issues are “first world problems”, but successful people have trouble too.

“Digital Gold”

Nathaniel Popper

“Digital Gold” is a history of Bitcoin from its creation until early 2014. Popper does a good job of covering how the early cryptocurrency movement was based in naive nerd libertarianism (well, that’s my takeaway, anyway), the rise and fall of Mt. Gox, and the hunt for “Dread Pirate Roberts“.

I wouldn’t characterize Popper as a Bitcoin skeptic, but he’s certainly not a Bitcoin cheerleader. I do wonder how anyone could put real money into Bitcoin (except as a speculative gamble) after reading this book.

“The Ends of the World”

Peter Brannen

The ridiculously long subtitle of this book describes it well: “Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions”. This is a fascinating overview of the entire history of the earth, focusing on the several times most life was wiped out. Turns out there’s a lot more to extinction than the end of the dinosaurs. (I was struck by something I never knew: the carbon cycle is geologic as well as biologic.)

I liked the author’s approach; he writes both about mass extinctions and the study of mass extinctions, profiling some interesting scientists in the process and visiting some interesting sites. Brannen draws parallels to what might be the next mass extinction, the one caused by human-caused climate change, but he never lets it override his main topic.

“Interstate: Confessions of a Rookie Truck Driver”

Douglas Sanderson

This is a memoir of a computer programmer who couldn’t find who took up truck driving. His account of going to trade school and starting as a driver are interesting and — since by his own admission he wasn’t a very good truck driver — sometimes amusing.

I’m sure I’m not the only programmer who, staring at the same cloth-covered cube walls day after day, has daydreamed about working on the road. No doubt there are truck drivers who study coding at rest stops hoping to escape their jobs. So I wish Sanderson had reflected on the differences between working in a cubicle and a truck cab, but this isn’t “Shop Class as Soulcraft“, so fair enough.

While it didn’t occur to me when I read the book, while writing this I realized that Sanderson’s job change was a weird reflection of mine. In 1977, with a fresh journalism degree and no real job prospects, I drove a delivery truck (groceries — no special license required) before going to trade school to become… a computer programmer.

(I know “computer programmer” is an outdated term. But to me calling myself a “software engineer” — my official title through most of my career — always seemed like a blacksmith calling himself a metallurgist. Not only had my entry into the trade been via a school that also minted budding radio DJs, but there still seems to me to be more craft in coding than science.)