Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: Aqua Sphere Kayenne Goggle

I've been suffering from some lower back pain due to lifting my toddler at a time when he was struggling. The pain's been bad enough that I've been banned from cycling or heavy lifting, and about the only sport I can indulge in is swimming.

I've been stealing my wife's cheap goggles for those swims, but they're a bit small for me (yes, I know, you're not surprised), and I felt the pressure in my eyes. They also weren't optically very clear, so I splurged and bought the Aqua Sphere Kayenne Googles.

I picked these because (1) they're cheap, and (2) the goggles themselves are wide enough that it looked like the cup around the goggles would be wide enough so that they would spread themselves out over a wide area around my eyes, relieving some of the pressure around my eyes while swimming. At $16 for the cheapest versions they're not super cheap, but they were indeed less pressure than the previous goggles.

They're also optically very clear! I swapped them with my wife one day in the pool and she liked it so much I bought her another pair that were identical to mine. Needless to say, for me to buy 2 of anything means I really like it alot. Recommended.

Review: Invisiblity

Invisibility is a young-adult novel by Andrea Creme and David Levithan. Levithan, you'll recall, is the author of Every Day, and the voice in this novel is very similar to that novel, despite being told alternatively from two perspectives, Stephen and Elizabeth.

The hook in the novel is that Stephen was cursed to be invisible from the day he was born. The novel details all the issues this brings. Stephen seems to have done a good job coping with life as it is, until one day, neighbors move in and Elizabeth is able to see him. We start with a quiet love story, set in New York and its environs, while Elizabeth and Stephen work through their budding romance.

Once Elizabeth discovers that she's the only person who can see Stephen, however, the action revs up and the novel goes into high gear. She quickly discovers why, and starts trying to figure out ways to solve Stephen's problem. At this point, Stephen quickly shifts from being the center of the story to becoming almost a by-stander.

What I like about the novel is that the characters are faced with no easy answers, and have to sacrifice in order to stay together. The authors also do not try to resolve the situation arbitrarily and let the rules they have in place run the climax and conclusion.

While this novel started slowly, towards the end I found myself captivated, flipping pages relentlessly to find out what happens next. That the novel doesn't cheat itself by trying to set up for a sequel (unlike Every Day) is another point in its favor.

Recommended.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Six Earlier Days

Six Earlier Days is a short prequel to David Leviathan's novel, Every Day. It's a light fast read, but doesn't have the heft or development of the novel. It brings together 6 different days of A's life, some of which reveals a facet of his character, and two of which foreshadowing the events to come in the novel. I can only recommend this book if you read Every Day and wanted more.

Review: Deep Risk

William Bernstein has written a new series of short books titled "investing for adults". Deep Risk is one of the series. The book is short, and I wish Bernstein had simply cobbled all the books in the series together as one book rather than trying to sell each monograph separately.

The idea behind Deep Risk is that there are 4 major potential disasters (Bernstein refers to them as the Four Horsemen) that can derail your financial plan. These are: inflation, deflation, confiscation (taxes), and devastation (war). He then analyzes them in terms of how frequently they occur and how difficult it would be to insure against them.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that inflation is by far the most common potential problem for any portfolio. What's interesting about Bernstein's analysis is that he discovers that the traditional inflation protection, Gold bullion, isn't actually very good as an inflation hedge! Rather, stock portfolios tend to do far better as inflation protection even though in the aftermath of an inflation, the stocks could do badly. Bernstein dismisses the potential short term underperformance of stocks as shallow risk: in other words, if you had the fortitude to hang on, you'd recover your portfolio with no permanent loss of capital.

Deflation is much less likely, and Bernstein claims that it has only happened once in Japan since developed countries went off the gold standard. He dismisses Japan as a one off. I disagree, as the U.S. came close to adopting the very same policies that Europe did and could have gotten 10 years of deflation as well. It's also not clear to me that Europe hasn't been subject to the same deflationary problems. Bernstein claims that gold is actually a great deflation hedge, since a big depression triggers a flight to safety, which is what gold traditionally is.

Bernstein defines confiscation relatively loosely. For instance, an increase in tax rates could be defined as confiscation. It seems to me that you could solve the confiscation relatively easily, by moving to a very high tax state with already confiscatory taxes, at which point your risk of further confiscation is relatively low. To be fair, Bernstein does point out the exiting U.S. citizenship would cost you an exit tax, and even holding foreign assets is no protection from the tax man, should we ever get an administration that chooses to enforce such laws. The reality is, if you're a U.S. citizen intending to stay in the U.S., there's relatively little that you can do beyond the existing well-known tax-sheltered accounts and tax-managed funds.

Finally, the threat of war is real, but again, there's relatively little you can do unless you decide to become a survivalist and start building bunkers. In serious threats, what you'd have to do is to stockpile food, guns, and ammunition and build a private army. Historically, people who've done that don't tend to do all that well financially, and the existence of events such as the Waco Seige indicates that even building your own private army doesn't do very good if someone with a real army chose to take you out.

Ultimately, I found the entire book disappointing and lacking in useful action items. The truth is, as a financial observer I've found that far more people have devastated their portfolio by panicking during a crisis than by having their wealth confiscated by a government, war, or even inflation. So rather than writing a series of books called "investing for adults", Bernstein probably should have written a book about how to become an adult, as far as investing is concerned. Not recommended.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: The Sports Gene

The Sports Gene is not just a book about athletes. It's also a thorough debunking of books such as Talent is Overrated. If you were to want to debunk that book, you'd want to do this starting with athletes. Pretty much everyone knows intuitively that no on 5' 2" and shorter is going to play in the NBA. The disadvantages that accrue from being shorter than all the freaks of nature playing in the NBA would just be too much for any amount of practice to overcome.

The book starts with Tiger Woods, whose dedication to golf is pretty famous and well-documented. What Epstein points out, however, is that few accounts of Woods' success points out that even at 6 months, Woods was capable of standing on his father's palm while his dad walked around the house! That's innate talent that wasn't taught and can't be taught.

The book then goes on to cover short distance athletes, marathoners, skiers, sled dogs, and ties it all together. What's great is that in the course of covering the genetics of performance, he also discusses certain questions that have always bothered me. For instance, if living at altitude is so beneficial, why aren't the gold medalist sprinters and marathoners from Tibet and the Nepal Himalaya instead of being from Africa? It turns out that there's an optimum altitude for hemoglobin creation (5000-7000'), beyond which it's difficult to train hard. Furthermore, the sherpas and other high mountain people developed a different genetic pathway towards altitude acclimation rather than the metabolically expensive hemoglobin creation.

There's also a great discussion of Superbaby, how the success of a breed of alaskan Huskies proved that even motivation has a genetic component (they bred a breed of dogs that just wants to run when harnessed!).

The author also studied the Australian Olympic program, which specializes in identifying which sports an athlete is uniquely suited for, and then grooms that athlete for those sports. In those cases, it's quite clear that gold medalists with talent can achieve in 4,000 hours what others without talent cannot do with 10,000 hours.

Epstein succeeds in making his points, though obviously doesn't answer any questions about the intellectual analogues to the skills/abilities he discusses. Along the way, you'll learn a few things about genetics and what types of bodies it takes to succeed in the various sports. The average reader might be disappointed that he doesn't discuss what ethical implications they may be, and how quickly genetic engineering is likely going to take over the sporting events. The days of unaugmented athletes being able to perform at the world level might very well be numbered.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and can highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Review: Naked Statistics

Naked Statistics is a non-technical introduction to statistics. In terms of explaining the science of statistics to laymen, it does a passable but not stellar job. The basics are straightforward: nearly everyone should know the difference between mean and median (the book doesn't cover "mode"), and Wheelan does a fine job of explaining the difference.

Where the book starts to fall apart is on items such as the Central Limit Theorem and Regression analysis. Both topics are technical enough that you really should just get out a statistics or math textbook and work through examples yourself. The book separates out the technical details in an appendix to each chapter, but I found that treatment unsatisfactory. On the other hand, I'm also the kind of person who'd read a textbook if  I really wanted to review this material as preparation.

The book is sprinkled with lots of examples, some of which are fun, but doesn't into enough depth about the anecdotes to really get at the gist of the matter. The author says he was inspired by How to Lie With Statistics, but in my opinion anyone who wants to read this book should read the original instead.

Not recommended. Go read a textbook instead, or the original source of inspiration instead.

Review: Cold Days

Cold Days is the latest available novel in the Dresden Files series. Like the previous couple of books in the series, you are well advised not to read this novel until you've read at least the previous 3 books in the series.

The books at this point suffer from the travails of a D&D campaign that's gone past the sweet spot of the game system. The characters are now extremely powerful and the only way for the DM/author to challenge the players is to keep throwing bigger and bigger challenges and bigger and bigger bad-asses at them.

This is not a bad thing. But as an action series, there's precious little time for reflection on the part of Harry Dresden, and there's even less motivation for him to introspect. We do get a few notices here and there on the part of the temptations he's subject to as the new Winter Knight, but by and large he brushes them off as he spends much of his time going for survival, rather than flexing his powers.

I did enjoy a number of plot twists in the book, and the expanded awareness of his urban fantasy world is a lot of fun for long time readers of the series. If you're already a follower of the series, this is a great book, and worth your time. While it's not necessary to read the entire series, it'd be worth while to at least start from Changes. Recommended.