Category Archives: Nonfiction

“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.)

“Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”

Jessica Bruder

This is the story of Americans who travel to live, not who live to travel.  They’re retirement-age people, often formerly middle class homeowners, who travel in cars, vans, and older RVs to work in Amazon fulfillment centers, campgrounds, the beet harvest in North Dakota and anywhere somebody will pay them for temporary labor.  They’re not living the #vanlife or hanging out with Good Sam members in upscale RVs.  They often have health problems, problems they have to ignore to work the often punishing temp jobs they need to supplement meager Social Security or disability checks.  Think “Grapes of Wrath” updated to the post-housing crash era.

Bruder is a sympathetic but not sentimental reporter.  Although you feel bad for the place her subjects find themselves in, you have to admire their ability to make the best of a bad situation and to build community and find mutual support. It’s also a cautionary tale of how a lack of savings, bad health, or a couple of bad breaks can knock someone right out of the middle class.

I would recommend this book along with “Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads” to anyone who wants to know the truth about how many citizens of  “The Greatest Nation on Earth” have to live.  Sadly, those who most need to be exposed to the truths in these books are the least likely to read them.

 

“The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life”

Francis Parkman

In 1846 a young, privileged Bostonian spent two months in the West. He traveled with Oregon-bound immigrants, lived rough, and spent a few weeks with the Oglala Lakota. The book Francis Parkman published two years later launched his literary career.

I admit it took me a while to read “The Oregon Trail”; I put it down a few times a left it sit for weeks at a time. But when I tuned my mind to Parkman’s slow — by modern standards — pace, I was able to enjoy it as pure time travel.