Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: The Spirit Level

I have mixed feelings about The Spirit Level. On the one hand, I agree with the premise and the thesis of the book: a more equal society makes everybody happier, and every one better off, rich and poor, wealthy or not. A more unequal society leads to more problems than you might believe, including higher violence, more stress, more diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and other problems, and those problems affect everyone in society, no matter how wealthy or poor.

This book draws lots of pictures, including graphs from various studies, and shows that there are very few outliers in statistics as infant mortality, and to a high degree, inequality is correlated with all sorts of societal ills that you might not realize were related.

Unfortunately, it's very difficult to go through this book without wanting to scream at the book: "Correlation is not causation!" There's precious little evidence of the causation. Now as an unabashed liberal and as someone who's seen frequently how frequently there is little correlation there is between financial success and hard work, talent, or even personality, I agree that inequality is a major problem and it's worth fighting hard to do something about it. On the other hand, I don't see anything in this book changing the minds of people whose fundamental attitude still is: "I've got mine, screw you." Unfortunately, those people are the ones with wealth and power in our society, and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Nevertheless, this book is easily available at your local library, and it's worth checking it out. Recommended.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The story behind the book

I first thought of writing this book because of having to repeat myself too many times to every new employee at Google who asked me about exercising his stock options. Obviously, I never got around to it until some time in late 2008, when I wrote a blog post about startup stock compensation.

The blog post got a surprisingly anemic reception, yet it gets continual hits even today, indicating that while few people piped up and said, "Oh yeah, I'd like to read a book about this," there were always a few people searching for the answers that the blog post was about. I fleshed out the chapter a bit and showed it to a couple of friends of mine. The feedback was, "The title sucks. I didn't think I'd be interested in the topic, but once I got started I enjoyed it despite myself!"

I put the project aside and went through 2009 busy with work and travel. I went down to 80% time at my day job, but the first few months of it was spent catching up on life activities, rather than working on the book. I bought a house, which turned out to be a massive project all by itself, scanned several year's worth of slides, which was something I should have done ages ago, and before I knew it, had hit Thanksgiving with only 3 chapters of the book done.

I ran into Kickstarter by accident, and decided then and there that if anything would spur me into writing the book, paying customers would! I put up my book there, and like magic, started writing furiously. The book was written entirely in OpenOffice, using styles and templates I had found on the web as a guide to ordering my thoughts. When I found myself working on the book even during my winter vacation, I knew I would get it done, and sooner than I expected.

I searched the web about publishing solutions after reading John Reed's book. His approach of printing his own book and binding it at home didn't appeal to me, and neither did ordering a thousand copy run of something I was sure would be a small market. I thought of trying to sell it to O'Reilly books, but the thought of having to deal with a real publisher made me wince. The last time I had a book contract, there was a lot of pressure to put in fluff to make the book fatter, because that's how people buy books in bookstores. After some research, I found CreateSpace, and discovered that despite being owned and affiliated by Amazon.com, you could just treat them as a short-run printing house and not let Amazon sell it on your behalf. If Amazon did sell it on your behalf, they would take 50% of the cut. If Amazon distributed it to bookstores on your behalf, they would take 70% of the cut. Neither of those deals sounded good to me: there are maybe 100,000 engineers in the country, and at most 5% of those would be interested in startups at any given time. That caps my sales at about 5,000 copies, if I reached every one of them (I probably won't).

Once I got it into my head to do it through CreateSpace, I stitched together all the files and formatted it in various form factors to see how it looked. I ruled out 8x10, because it's bulky and hard to ship. Smaller sizes required more pages, and CreateSpace charged for printing by the page after 100 pages. I decided on 6x9 as a compromise.

Putting together the cover was interesting. Amazon provides a template, and I had a copy of Photoshop anyway from my photography hobby. It turns out that if you need to do something with Photoshop nowadays, all you need to do to google the task you want to do, and follow the step-by-step instructions. I was surprised at how easy it was.

Once all that was put together, I signed up for CreateSpace's Pro Plan (which reduced the price per copy of the book: all it takes is a 40-copy run and the Pro Plan pays for itself), and then worked on iterating on the interior and exteriors. You have to do this a couple of times because how much margin to use and how to make it look good isn't obvious, and of course print is always different than looking at photos on a computer screen.

The Kindle version was very easy. I was very familiar with MobipocketCreator from prior experience, and it sucked in my files just fine. There were a few glitches, which I dealt with by diving into the html intermediate format and directly editing the files (you can do this once the manuscript is in close to final stage). It turned out that by using the OpenOffice styles appropriately, my book lined up very easily with what Mobipocket Creator expected.

All the pre-production work took about 2-3 days of total work time. Proof reading and copy-editing was helped a lot because Larry Hosken took it upon himself to copy-edit the book in detail. Others provided gobs of input as well. The Kickstarter process is extremely valuable in this regards. You really do get people who are interested in helping out, and are familiar with the topic at hand. The final part was sending out the manuscript to everyone who was quoted in it to make sure I didn't misquote anyone. Everyone was incredibly helpful and I'm very grateful that people have been so generous with their time.

All in all, I think while having an editor, etc., would have been nice, I'm not sure I wanted to give away 90% of the income from the book to get that, given how niche a market this book will sell into. In particular, the book will more than break even even in the first printing, which makes me very happy. Now, I still would have been better off flipping burgers than writing the book, but at least I'll never have to give the same advice over and over again. I can tell people to RTFM! I learned a lot, and I think I'd be willing to write another book or two, but for the next month or two at least, most of my writing will be on this blog.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: John T Reed's Self-Publishing

I really liked John T. Reed's Residential Property Handbook, and bought his Self-Publishing Book because I was going to publish my own book.

John T. Reed makes 6 figures a year selling his own books. He has well over 30 books available on his web-site, and each book makes about $25 in profit. So he sells about 4000 books a year. Split over 30 titles, that's at least 133 copies per title, and indeed, he tells you to expect sales of between 100 and 1500 copies per book per year. How does he know how many to print? He prints his own books off his laser printer and binds his own copies for the first few copies, and then after a few months, orders a year's supply. This by the way explains why all his books are 8x10". It makes it harder to ship, but he saves a step by not having to cut it. Does Reed explain this in his book? No. Maybe it's obvious, but things like sizing decisions are important, so why not spend some time discussing it?

The problem with doing this is that unless you sell lots of different books, the $300 cost of a binding machine and all the space it takes up is probably better spent on other things. He does explain the costs of getting books from a book manufacturer, and since he does thousand copy runs, the costs are fine, but surprisingly high, compare to print on demand vendors such as CreateSpace. I don't know why you wouldn't just go with a print-on-demand vendor instead, especially since the cost of California real estate is high enough that stocking several thousand copies of inventory has got to be cumbersome.

As a how-to book vendor, Reed doesn't spend a lot of time telling you how to polish your prose. In fact, he says he usually writes one draft and then is done! Maybe you shouldn't do that if you're a first time author. I find a surprising number of bugs, both from the revisions in the book, and from the process itself (i.e., checking out the interior, etc). He takes a very minimal approach to the cover as well, since he sells off the internet. Unfortunately, since he has an extremely high page rank site, he doesn't have much experience with tools that other writers who might not have such highly ranked web-sites might use.

He composes in Adobe Indesign. That's a $700 piece of software! For a beginning writer, OpenOffice will do everything you need to with prose. None of Reed's books have particularly complex layout, so I don't know why he would do what he's doing, except that he has enough book volume that it doesn't matter. Stuff like this permeates the book. I think he's been in business so long that he doesn't know how to teach someone else how to bootstrap any more.

By far the bulk of the book is spent reassuring the reader that self-publishing is the right thing to do. In particular, the numbers all work out in the self-publisher's favor, as described in this article on his site.

All in all, I was disappointed by the poor value in this book. Reading the book's web-page will probably tell you all you're going to learn from the book anyway. Not recommended.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Soft-launch of books.piaw.net

My Kickstarter Project finished with 42 backers and over $1,000 in pre-orders! At this point, I've uploaded the final version of the book to Amazon, and will order a final proof and get an initial print order in by Friday.

The advantage of digital editions is that I don't have to wait to start selling the book. You can now buy the book via pay-pal or Google Checkout at http://books.piaw.net/guide/. Buy buttons for the print copies of the book will show up once print copies arrive and I can start shipping them.

I would like to thank everyone who backed me at Kickstarter, and I hope the book proves useful! This is a soft launch because I won't be putting up adwords, etc. before I start selling print copies, so if you're waiting for me to launch a major marketing blitz, just wait a week or two.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review: The Magicians

I first read about The Magicians in an interview with Lev Grossman. In it, he proclaimed that the book was about a mash-up of Harry Potter and Narnia, set in the real world.

The book is told from the point of Quentin, who at the beginning of the novel is a bright high schooler with a crush on one of his closer classmates. When attempting to interview for a prestigious ivy-league University, circumstances intervenes and he finds himself taking an entrance exam for a wizard's college. This part is extremely well done, with head-fakes and other author's techniques use to great success to make you think that you know what's coming.

Overall, the Wizard's college part of the book was extremely well done. All the parts of Harry Potter that you might have considered childish is instead fleshed out. No fake-latin, no sorting hat. Even the spell-casting and magical training feels gritty. There's a spell-casting accident, of course, but Grossman manages to avoid evoking either Earthsea or Harry Potter.

The second section of the book, about Quentin's graduation and time in the real world, I thought was very badly done. We're given that someone so driven and purposeful in his studies would descend into alcoholism once outside the confines of school. Given my experience of top quality colleges, the kind of people that driven in school can't help but choose to maximize their impact outside school. I feel that Grossman made his characters service the plot in this case, rather than the other way around.

The last section of the book involves Fillory, the book's Narnia-equivalent. A series of novels about a family of children who visited Fillory to save the land from great evil surfaced in the 1930s, and of course, all the Wizard's college graduates have read the books and loved them, and know them by heart like any true geek would. Well, our graduates find a way to Fillory, and of course, an entire cohort decides to assault it. I love the section where they model battle-magic after spells in the D&D's Players Handbook. (Hey, what else would you have done?) I also enjoy the various vague references to D&D scattered all of the book, none of which would distract if you weren't a D&D player.

From then on, the pace of the novel accelerates and we reach the climax and after-math (which unfortunately has "sequel-potential" written all over it) are well-written and unpredictable.

I got this book out of the library yesterday, started on it last night, and finished it today. My complaint about the book is that I feel that while Grossman is a good plotter, his characters aren't as good as they could be, and his plot seem to almost work against his characterization. This is one case where the ideas behind the book are fantastic but the writer's technical capability falls quite short. Nevertheless, it is probably worth the $9.99 Kindle price, but there was no line for it at the library, so I would check that first. Mildly Recommended.
(And in case you're wondering, the parent publisher is Penguin, so it's OK to buy this book--they're not yet one of the evil publishers trying to destroy the ebook market)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Movie Review: Catfish

Disclosure: I saw this movie for free at a Google-only screening.

One could be forgiven in thinking that Google and Facebook sponsored this movie, because their properties feature so heavily in it. Yet, unlike, You've Got Mail, this is a documentary. It actually did happen to one of the film maker's brother. I guess when you're a film maker in New York, you get material whenever you can.

The star is Nev Schulman, a photographer in New York who gets a photo published in the New York Times. He receives fan mail from an 8 year old artist in the form of an oil painting of his photograph, and begins a Facebook based correspondence with her. In very little time, he becomes inter-twined with her entire family, including her older half-sister Megan.

Yet everything doesn't quite adds up, and the movie comes to a climax when Nev and his brother decide to pay a visit to Abby's family. The movie obviously comes from home-video quality cameras: everything's shaky, hand-held, and grainy. But the story is king here, and it holds up and is especially compelling. By the time we get to the climax, the film-makers believe they have a real movie, and suddenly everything becomes much higher quality. The movie is quite predictable, but just like a train wreck, I couldn't stop watching...

I got a kick out of seeing many Google products in use. Gmail, Google, Youtube, Google Maps, Google Earth and Streetview. What a riot! If you're a current or ex-Googler, watch this movie. Oh yeah, if you're a Facebooker, watch it too! Recommended, but won't lose anything if you watch it on the small screen.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: 9

I will admit that Up disappointed me, and though I liked Wall-E better, I felt that Pixar had not really delivered since The Incredibles. I saw 9 at the bookmobile at the same time as Sweeney Todd, and since they both had Tim Burton's name on the box, decided to pick both of them up.

I didn't like Sweeney Todd very much, so put off watching 9, but that would have been a mistake. Visually, 9 is stunning. The animation, the colors, and the tight control of palette just jumped out at me. In many places, it felt as though I was drawn into the world, since the rendered images were so real. The story is dark, set in a post-apocalyptic world and has obvious plot holes you can throw a rag-doll through, but is no worse than the typical Pixar animated movies. The characters are great, and well-acted by the likes of Elijah Wood and Jennifer Connelly. It is largely on the strength of the characters and their reactions to the world we explore with them that makes the movie tick. I especially love the design of the rag dolls and their weaponry, built out of scavenged office supplies.

If you're tired of the bright-cheery world of Disney/Pixar animations, take a look at 9. You will find it a worthwhile antidote. Recommended.

Review: Fables 13

With the 13th collection of Fables, Bill Willingham has jumped the shark.

The premise is that there's a different set of literary inspired beings called the literals, and one of them is the writer Kevin Thorn, who literally can write the world out of existence. There's plenty of jokes, a lot of breaking of the fourth wall, and we see one of our favorite characters subject to some indignities that don't really help the story.

Ultimately, the whole thing came and went like a bad dream. After I was done with the issue, I went back and saw that the collection even came from different comic book series, cross-over fashion. If each issue was written by a different person, I could understand the inanities, but it's all Bill Willingham! If the next book is just as insipid, I'll stop reading Fables, which is a pity, because I think 1-12 is easily some of the best fiction published in any format.

It is nearly impossible to duplicate a photo

I was complaining that the cover I built didn't have nearly the resolution I would like. The proof isn't back yet, so I can't say for sure one way or another. It might be that the cover itself will look fine. But Dan asked, "Why can't you just hike up the mountain again and try to get the picture?"

Well, yesterday was a fine day for a hike, so I set out with my 5D2 and walked up Black Mountain:
Black Mountain In Fog
As you can see, changing weather conditions make it very difficult to replicate the same picture, and all outdoor photography is like that: a capture of a fleeting moment. One of my friends once went to Paris to try to duplicate my Eiffel shot:
From Converted

It turned out to be nearly impossible, even with a similar lens and being in the same location. That's why I prefer to scout locations myself and try to look at everything with a fresh eye, rather than replicate Ansel Adam's tripod holes. Ultimately, seeing is very personal. But I don't regret yesterday's hike. Seeing Silicon Valley covered by a layer of fog was delightful!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Fortune's Formula

Fortune's Formula is William Poundstone's exploration of gambling and the stock market.

He starts with an exposition of the various scientists who've worked on it. These included the usual suspects of any finance book: Claude Shannon, Black & Scholes, Robert Merton. However, the lessor known ones include Ed Thorp and John Kelly.

In many ways, Poundstone's book is about the conflicting ideas behind the efficient market hypothesis academics and the gambling hypothesis. The gamblers were largely governed by the Kelly Criterion, while the efficient market guys focused on making leveraged bets and made headlines mostly by blowing themselves up (as LTCM did). The Kelly criterion folks noted that the LTCM-type betters were betting so heavily that their expected return over the long term was effectively zero.

What is notable was that none of the Kelly criterion people in the book blown up, though Thorp's fund was shut down over tax shenanigans, indicating perhaps that his 28% return was at least partially due to cheating. In any case, the statistical arbitrage folks seem to have had unusual success in the market, though at the end of the book Poundstone indicates that since 2002, they've not been all that successful, probably because too many people entered the statistical arbitrage field after Thorp's success. Another interesting note about the apparently success was that all the portfolios were relatively small. Thorp's operation never exceeded several hundred million dollars, and Claude Shannon's portfolio at the time of this death was approximately half a million dollars. This suggests that the efficient market guys were partly correct: you can't scale up the kind of statistical arbitrage operation that Thorp was running without also eliminating the kind of opportunities that would make such operations successful. Of course, as an individual investor, several hundred million bucks is enough real money that a really smart person with access to a lot of data could probably execute large enough bets often enough to make himself wealthy for life. Thorp, by the way, was the first person to discover how to win at blackjack, the inspiration for the MIT folks in Bringing Down The House.

In any case, this book is very well written, covering all the basic theories and math without even a single equation (though there are plenty of graphs). It does take sides, and like many journalists, I'm not sure the entire story was told. However, if you have an interest in statistical arbitrage, this is a great book with a lot of fascinating stories in it. In particular, you might be surprised at the number of crooks involved in this type of operation. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Review: Fables Trade Paperback 1-12

I recently bought the entire Fables Trade Paperback Collection on ebay.

I first wrote about Fables in 2007, and since then, the initial story arc has run to completion. We learn who the adversary is, we watch Fabletown fight for its survival and then finally gets its own back. Willingham somehow puts together Little Red Riding Hood, Little Boy Blue, and Pinocchio's father Geppetto all in the same story without losing plausibility. In fact, frequently when you first encounter a character in Fables, your reaction is one of both surprise and satisfaction. Of course, Cinderella would run a shoe store in New York!

The one flaw I can find in the series is the problem of the 26-page comic books. The final chapter of the big story arc seemed hastily written, to try to fit every loose-end into a 26 page issue. I guess that's no worse than the last episode of Buffy was. At least, so far, when Willingham kills off a major character, he hasn't been brought back to life yet.

In any case, the series comes highly recommended.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Review: Juliet, Naked

I was telling Cynthia earlier today that Nick Hornby is the poet laureate of the Male Obsession Syndrome (MOS). That's the mode many men (ok, maybe all men) get into where they'll obsess over a topic of interest and spend all their time thinking about it until they know every darn detail about everything. So you'll get the guy who knows everything there is about Spiderman, including every obscure super-villain who's ever showed up in Amazing Spiderman issues #1-500. High Fidelity was about a music geek, Fever Pitch was about being a soccer geek, How to be Good is about becoming a philanthropic geek...

And now Juliet, Naked, is about being a washed-out singer-songwriter-obsessed man. Or rather, that's what you think until you realize that the book is really being told from the perspective of the girlfriend of such an obsessed person, who's slowly realizing that her biggest rival isn't another woman, but the object of Duncan's obsession.

Slowly, as we go through the novel, we realize that the novel is really about the woman's counter part to MOS --- the need of a woman (in this case Anne) to obsess over her relationships, family, her need to live up to someone else's expectations, and somehow, in the midst of all that fulfill her own needs. Into the mix we throw in the object of Duncan's obsession, the singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe, who withdrew from the limelight some 15 years ago after his best-selling and brilliant album, Juliet.

When the acoustic recordings are released as Juliet, Naked, Duncan receives it and immediately blogs about it. Anne, having heard it and decided that it wasn't as good as the original Juliet, writes a counter-argument and receives a surprising e-mail response from Tucker Crowe. When Tucker visits England to in somewhat forced circumstances, Anne and Tucker finally meet, and the novel sets about providing the comedy of failed expectations and the messiness of the aftermath of a rock star's career.

While the book is funny at times, it does not have the same spark as How to be Good (still my favorite Hornby novel) or the freshness of High Fidelity. The ending feels as though Hornby wrote himself into a corner and didn't know how to extricate himself. Waiting to check it out of the library was the right decision.

Book Cover is ready!


I'm in the final phase of the book. At this point, the book has gone to everyone who's quoted in it, as well as every early backer over at Kickstarter. Shameless plug: if you want the book at the current price of $15 per copy, order it by the 24th. When the Kickstarter phase is over, the book will be priced at $29.95.

It turns out that I don't have many photos of Silicon Valley that are great, mostly because whenever I go hiking in the area, I tend to just bring a point and shoot rather than a serious camera. I have lots of great photos of San Francisco Bay, and I contemplated renaming the book to say, "Bay Area" instead of Silicon Valley for just half a second.

I'll get a proof copy of the book from CreateSpace (my PoD vendor --- which is really just a small print run vendor for me) as soon as the approval process is complete. When I get that in my hot little hands, I'll see if I need to reshoot the photo.

Anyway, after I showed the picture to Peng-Toh, he suggested that I make it black and white, so now I've posted both version. Which do you like better?