Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Black Swan, by Nassin Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassin Nicholas Taleb

This book examines the fallacies of forecasting and the hidden risks we all (usually unknowingly) accept by ignoring the problems with our statistical methods. For instance, Wall Street brokers use amazingly complicated models to predict which stocks will rise and fall, but none of these models ever seem to protect the public from crashes due to events such as 9-11 or Enron. These rare events affect our portfolios in a much more significant way than any daily gain or loss, yet the future-looking models don’t warn us when needed. Taleb believes that this is because the most important changes in our world can’t be predicted: “History does not crawl, it jumps.”

I really liked the writing style the author uses here. Uncommon words and complicated sentences are often encountered, but I never got the impression that Taleb was trying to impress anyone; he simply comes across as smart: “The discovery of human epistemic arrogance ... was allegedly inadvertent.” He doesn’t dumb down the admittedly intricate topic, but treats the reader as an equal. Refreshing. I also enjoyed the author’s sly sense of humor. “Assume that you round up a thousand people randomly selected from the general population and have them stand next to one another in a stadium. You can even include Frenchmen (but please, not too many out of consideration for the others in the group), Mafia members, non-Mafia members, and vegetarians.” Lines like these often made me smile, something I didn’t expect from an opinionated book discussing history, philosophy, and statistics.

First Sentence:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull.

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, by Lawrence Block

The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, by Lawrence Block

Another fun entry in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series! The plot is much the same as we’ve seen before: Bernie pulls a carefully planned heist, gets framed for murder, sleeps with a woman he just met, and eventually solves the crime clears his name. Predictable, but fun! In many ways, this series reminds me of Remington Steele with its offbeat approach and zany antics. Even the titles use the same gag, with all the Bernie books using the word burglar and every episode of Remington Steele including the word Steele. This book was an entertaining diversion for the hour or so it took to read.

First Sentence:
It was a slow day at Barnegat Books, but then most of them are.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Chris Bunch's The Gangster Conspiracy, by Steve Perry and Dal Perry

Chris Bunch's The Gangster Conspiracy: A Star Risk, Ltd., Novel , by Steve Perry and Dal Perry

Chris Bunch died a few years ago, so I was surprised to see a new novel in his Star Risk, Ltd. universe. Turns out that Bunch had the outline of a novel ready to go when he passed, so his friend and fellow writer Steve Perry and his son finished it for publication. I was hoping it wasn't as bad as other authors that have had books written posthumously, and luckily it wasn't. In fact, it was pretty good! The Star Risk novels are easily compared to action movies: wry humor and action sequences are more important than plot or character development and in the end everyone gets their just desserts. The Gangster Conspiracy is no exception and delivers on the promise. The ending finds the heroes wealthy and happy and going their separate ways so it is probable this will be the last entry in the chain of novels; this seems fitting as any future exploits won't have Bunch's hand in them. Regardless, the Star Risk series has been a guilty pleasure, and I've enjoyed reading them all.

First Sentence:
If you had to go broke, there were worse places to do it than the new Star Risk Ltd. offices.

Powers of Detection, edited by Dana Stabenow

Powers of Detection: Stories of Mystery and Fantasy, edited by Dana Stabenow

Similar to Murder by Magic, this anthology blends the mystery and fantasy genres in twelve short stories. Interestingly, Stabenow in the introduction says that she only put together Powers of Detection because her (excellent) story Justice is a Two-Edged Sword was rejected for Murder by Magic for being too long. I think Stabenow’s collection is more even quality-wise than Edghill’s, but both are quite enjoyable.

Fairy Dust by Charlaine Harris was my favorite, a story set in rural Louisiana where a couple of fairies ask a mind reader to solve a murder at a strip club. (I also agree with the editor that the opening line is fantastic: “I hate it when fairies come into the bar.”) The Price by Anne Bishop is also very strong; I’d be interested in reading a novel focused on the antagonist and the odd world in which she lives. Lovely by John Straley was the most unique with the protagonist being a raven, although Simon R. Green’s The Nightside, Needless to Say is a close second where the hero is a zombie. The weakest story in my opinion is Mike Doogan’s The Death of Clickclickwhistle although the curses and exclamations of the characters are fantastic: everyone uses famous villains to cuss! “Why in the name of Jeffrey Dahmer do you talk like that?” “Adolf Hitler!” “Vlad the Impaler!” “Ah, Saddam Hussein.” And of course, “George W. Bush!” Great stuff!

First Sentence (From the introduction):
This anthology is all Laura Anne Gilman’s fault.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

D Magazine's Dallas: The 30 Greatest Stories Ever Told, edited by McGill and Rogers

D Magazine is like most local interest magazines: it covers a range of topics including politics, crime, business, and lifestyles aimed at the affluent local (in this case, Dallas) crowd. To celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2004, the periodical released a book containing 30 stories that span the publication’s history. I grew up in the Dallas area and was looking forward to reading this, but many of the stories are badly dated. Blackie Sherrod’s ode to Jack Proctor for instance didn’t have much meaning to me because I’d never heard of Proctor. Tom Stephenson’s description of the Cullen Davis murder investigation was a compelling read, but because it was written before the trial actually took place it was a frustrating finish that left me hanging. Mike Shropshire’s examination of the Clayton Williams gubernatorial campaign suffers in a similar fashion, as the election hadn’t yet taken place. This book would have been much more interesting if the editors had provided introductions or epilogues to illuminate the vignettes. If you spent any time in the Metroplex during the 80’s or 90’s then you might enjoy reading this—despite the tone of this review, I did like this book—but without a connection to the area (and the lack of any expository text) I suspect you’ll find this a bit of a mess.

First Sentence (from the Foreward):
It seemed a simple task: pick the 30 greatest stories ever told in the pages of D Magazine.

Machiavelli for Beginners, by Curry and Zarate

Machiavelli for Beginners, by Curry and Zarate

I spied this on the bookshelf at a friend’s place: a short, illustrated biography of Machiavelli. With Karl Rove in the news so much these days, I couldn’t resist borrowing it. I’d read The Prince in high school but hadn’t retained much and knew even less about the author himself. This does a good job of both summarizing the life of Machiavelli and explaining the political and social dynamics of the day. Even without an interest in the Machiavelli and politics of power, this is a fascinating book simply for the presentation. The illustrations use many styles, from cartoons to woodcuts, collage to post-impressionism. The exposition is part text and part comic book style speech balloons. The combinations lead to a wide variety of unique looks that keep the pages turning—I consumed this in a single sitting. This is a quick, easy read that is both entertaining and informative; I quite enjoyed it.

First Sentence:
For over four hundred years, Niccolò Machiavelli has been a byword for cynicism, immorality and cruelty in politics.

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