Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books Read - Q4 2019

In Q4 read 15 books, which makes 48 for the year. Previously: see the Q1 books list (16), Q2 books (9), Q3 books (8), and the 2018 list which was 113.

  • Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World's Largest Online Auto Auction (3/5) Somebody on fintwit mentioned this - the story of Copart which is a salvage auction company, and an $18 billion company founded in 1982 by a rural Oklahoman with a high school education. He started out in 1972 with a junkyard that he bought with seller financing - selling his house to come up with the downpayment, and moving into the yard. The best excerpt that was posted from the book was this one, about how he thought about buying and acquiring salvage auctions versus how his fast-growing, "roll-up" public competitor thought about it. It was a quick read but not much marginal benefit from reading the whole thing vs just those excerpts. Book ideas from Twitter have been subpar lately.
  • Dead Companies Walking: How A Hedge Fund Manager Finds Opportunity in Unexpected Places (2/5) Another one from Twitter that was not really worthwhile, except for two good excerpts. The first, "The financial world suffers from an inherent flaw: the people who work in it, by and large, are terrible investors." People who work in finance are hyper-competitive status-climbers, which means that they have trouble admitting failure and are highly susceptible to groupthink. The second (thread) is about the optimism bias of corporate managers: "People in management positions, even very senior management positions, are often completely wrong about the fortunes of their own companies. More important, in making these misjudgments, they almost always err on the side of excessive optimism." We have talked about the optimism bias in the past. He thinks that there are six common mistakes that cause companies to fail: (1) learning only from the recent past, (2) relying too heavily on a formula for success, (3) misreading or alienating their customers, (4) falling victim to a mania, (5) [being disrupted], and (6) being physically or emotionally removed from their companies' operations. As a shortseller, he has also noticed that stocks underreact to negative news: "Even the stocks of the most severely troubled businesses would often continue trading at much higher prices than they should have, and for far longer than they had any right to. Time after time, I would study a company's financial statements and be mystified that its share price was anywhere over a penny."
  • The Trees in My Forest (3.5/5) By Bernd Heinrich (previously in links) - not as good as some of his other books from last quarter or last year. It's about his forest - three hundred acres in Maine - that he bought in 1977 after it had been recently logged. Some thoughts: "All the ingenious strategies that different tree species use to tap the incredible amount of solar energy that is available are contingent on what competitors do." "Wood itself has evolved independently several times." Wood is dead tissue that is water-conducting and also structural. About Dutch elm disease: "If it is inevitable that the tree will be killed before it reaches a half foot in diameter, then only those who have a tendency to reproduce early, while they have the chance, will pass on their genes to future generations... Perhaps the best strategy for elms now may be to reproduce at any size, immediately upon becoming infected... Theoretically a tree could evolve to require the fungus as a signal to tell it to bloom." Allergies: "Trees improve their odds of fertilization by dispersing astronomical numbers of pollen grains... [no one knows] why northern trees are mostly wind-pollinated rather than animal-pollinated." Anti-oxidants: "As part of the process of photosynthesis plants release oxygen. Too much sunlight may release a toxic excess of oxygen molecules." Plants have pigments that divert excess sunlight: "They are responsible for some of the brilliant fall leaf colors after the clorophyll" is removed from the trees in the fall. Large seeds vs small seeds strategy - large seeds invite predators to eat them and they are less mobile. "[A] tree generally produces no seeds for a few years - until all of its seed predators have starved or left." Bernd has "kept informal records of the nut crops, commonly called 'mast,' in [his] forest since the fall of 1980." By buying the forest for $90 an acre in 1977, Bernd made a timber investment when the ten year treasury was yielding around 7.5%. He says that he has sold timber on the stump (net) for more than twice the original price of the property. (See Norwegian Wood review from Q1 books.)
  • The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration (3/5) Another one by Bernd Heinrich. A few interesting things. Loons that have claimed a northern pond to nest in the spring confront "floaters;" single birds without homes. "The floaters were scouting - making assessments of both the worthiness of the others' real estate and the defensive capabilities of the resident males - to gauge the possibility for future takeovers." Indigo buntings navigate with stellar orientation. "Knowledge of the specific star patterns as such is thus not inherited, but attention to them, the capacity to learn from them and respond to them, is." Other birds can sense (and "see") the variation of Earth's magnetic field and use it to navigate - not only to fly north or south but also to estimate latitude based on the angle of the magnetic lines of force.
  • Everything I Know About Business I Learned From The Godfather (4/5) "Writing about The Godfather's business lessons is not an endorsement of horses' heads in beds, garroting, cold-blooded murders of business rivals, bribery, extortion, or any other Mafia criminality, any more than writing about the US government is an endorsement of theft via taxation, regulatory extortion, crony socialism, regime changes, senseless and endless wars, intelligence agency skullduggery, Orwellian surveillance, bureaucratic rot, and nonstop lies." He quotes something from the novel that I did not remember: "He had a fleet of freight hauling trucks that made him a fortune primarily because his trucks could travel with a heavy overload and not be stopped and fined by highway weight inspectors. These trucks helped ruin the highways and then his road-building firm, with lucrative state contracts, repaired the damage wrought." He likens this to government schools: "[T]hose who love government have a growing number of votes. Many of them educated in government schools, which have instilled in them a belief in government  - a corrupt business creating more corrupt business for itself."
  • Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death (3/5) One more Bernd Heinrich. His is less consistent than John McPhee - my favorite was probably One Wild Bird at a Time. And The Nesting Season was important because it illuminates how the human mind is susceptible to harmful memes just as a sparrow is vulnerable to having cowbird eggs dumped in its nest. I might read One Man's Owl and, when it comes out next year, White Feathers. Some thoughts from Life Everlasting... who knew: "Aside from eusocial species such as ants and honey bees, parental care is quite rare among insects, and burying beetles are remarkable exceptions." Humans are "the ultimate scavengers of all time," sustaining an enormous population now using the remains of plants that are hundreds of millions of years old. The more I read about biology and ecology, the more I think that Malthus will eventually be proven right in the physics vs economics debate about the finite world. We may be starting to see this with the failure of oil shale to generate shareholder returns (or even preserve bond investors' capital) at current low oil prices. Also: vultures "find food by soaring, which has nearly the same metabolic cost as perching - it's the equivalent of perching in the sky... they are also adapted to survive fasts of several weeks or more." Points out that biocides (like rodent poisons) travel up the food chain and hurt larger animal predators and scavengers of them. "A slower but surer method would be to foster populations of native owls and kestrels." One other thing - a puzzle - why do salmon die after they spawn? As Wikipedia explains, the death of salmon looks like a "programmed senescence," "characterized by immunosuppression and organ deterioration"! ("Semelparous animals spawn once only in their lifetime. Semelparity is sometimes called 'big bang' reproduction, since the single reproductive event of semelparous organisms is usually large and fatal to the spawners.") This was the question in Cracking the Aging Code, a Q1 2019 book. Remember, that author believes that aging is a group-selected adaptation that serves to "stabilize ecosystems, to level the death rate in good times and hard times," because "despite the fact that aging is a disaster for the individual, evolution seems to have guarded and preserved the genes for aging as though they were the crown jewels. This is a dead giveaway that aging must have an essential biological function."
  • The Lost Philosopher: The Best of Anthony M. Ludovici (3/5) British intellectual who lived 1882-1971, he briefly worked for sculptor Rodin. He points out that "the lesson of the Middle Ages was to the effect that Church and state were only too frequently in conflict, and unless a European monarch had either come to an agreement with Rome, or had, like the aristocratic rulers of Venice, wisely insisted on controlling ecclesiastical affairs in his own state, his authority was never secure. At any moment, the Church as the spiritual and moral guide of Christendom might intervene and champion the cause either of his subjects or of his enemies against him... and when we remember that the Christian religion, unlike the Jewish, the Greek, the Egyptian, and the Roman, is an international or Catholic religion, aiming at universality and calling itself universal, we have to recognize in its presence in the nation not only a state within the state but in some respects a foreign state within the state." We saw this in God's Secret Agents - during the reign of Richard II an act of parliament called the Statute of Praemunire made it illegal for anyone to act in a way that recognized papal authority over the authority of the king. Ludovici was a translator of Nietzsche and so, like Mencken, he was a critic of Christianity. He favored eugenics and was worried about how Christianity failed to "value man biologically and asethetically" as opposed to just morally. He traced this back to Greece: "every essential position of Christianity was first discovered and conquered by the thinkers of Greece: dualism, the immortality of the soul," etc. 
  • On Liberty, Society, and Politics: The Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner (2/5) William Graham Sumner was mentioned in The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes (read in Q2 2018). "The Forgotten Man" is a Sumner coinage (from this essay) which Roosevelt and his communist "brain trust" stole and turned on its head! (His words twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.) The Forgotten Man is you and me, the Credit Bubble Stocks community of thrifty workers and investors. Sumner's point was that do-gooders steal money from the likes of us to give to other people. But FDR inverted it with the absurd notion that the millions of people on his dole were the forgotten. That's Sumner's best (and only good) essay. He says: "All the public expenditure to prevent vice has the same effect. Vice is its own curse. If we let nature alone, she cures vice by the most frightful penalties. It may shock you to hear me say it, but when you get over the shock, it will do you good to think of it: a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be. Nature is working away at him to get him out of the way, just as she sets up her processes of dissolution to remove whatever is a failure in its line. Gambling and less mentionable vices all cure themselves by the ruin and dissolution of their victims. Nine-tenths of our measures for preventing vice are really protective towards it, because they ward off the penalty."
  • How Not to Be Eaten: The Insects Fight Back (3/5) We live on Planet Insect. Many insects undergo metamorphosis, either gradual (starting as nymphs) or complete (starting as larvae). The two life phases represent anatomical and behavioral specialization: the jarvae are "eating machines" and the adults are "flying gonads". Based on insect species that are known, "complete metamorphosis has been an evolutionarily more successful strategy for survival," with only 15% of species having gradual metamorphosis. Quotes Roger Tory Peterson on the insects: "The insects, which have invaded nearly every terrestrial environment on Earth, are unable to evade the birds that probe the soil, turn over the leaf litter, search the bark, dig into the trunks of trees, scrutinize every twig and living leaf. The water is no safe refuge,  nor is the air, nor the dark of night. There is a bird of some sort to hunt nearly every insect." Birds that eat insects from trees are divided into feeding guilds, the specialization driven by the principal of competitive exclusion. "People of almost all non-Western cultures eat insects, usually as a special treat." The current "elite" are working on preparing Americans to live in shipping containers and eat bugs as the country gets more crowded. There was a natural experiment showing natural selection during the 19th century in England when coal smoke blackened tree trunks and killed lichens that grew on them. The pale peppered moth quickly changed color to black (over a period of several decades) - then changed back when the air got cleaner during the 20th century! Animals use countershading - dark on upper surfaces and light on lower surfaces - "the artist, by the skillful use of light and shade, creates upon a flat surface the illusionary appearance of roundness. Nature on the other hand, by the precise use of countershading, produces upon a rounded surface the illusionary appearance of flatness." Insects that are insect eaters are especially likely to be solitary - to avoid cannibalism. Other types are gregarious and get advantages against predators from group living. "The epitome of group living and group defense is practiced by the eusocial insects..." "Insects are good biochemists," and they also use toxins created by plants. "The seeds plants produce a huge variety of toxins, may thousands of them, to deter insects and other animals that intend to nibble on them." Mentions Bernd Heinrich's observations of caterpillars that know to hide the evidence of their leaf feeding so that birds, which are looking for this, don't find them. "Insects are the most effective of the biological agents that limit the increase of plant populations." "Batesian mimicry is arguably the ultimate of the counterdefenses that have evolved so far."
  • Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (3.5/5) Previously, see Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, which mentions Powell. Born in 1834, he is most famous for his expedition from the Green River in Wyoming down the Colorado River to Nevada: "Nine men had plunged into the unknown from the last outpost of civilization in the Uinta Valley on the sixth of July, 1869. On August 30 six came out." Towards the end of the journey, three of the men left the boats to try to hike out of the canyon because they did not think the remaining rapids would be survivable. "The three had climbed the wall and made it to the forested top of the plateau. They had made it no farther. They lay out there now somewhere beside a waterpocket, stripped and filled with Shivwits arrows, victims of an Indian misunderstanding and of their own miscalculation of the algebra of chance." The key to the West: "Water is the true wealth in a dry land; without it, land is worthless or nearly so. And if you control the water, you control the land that depends on it. In that fact alone was the ominous threat of land and water monopolies." And some other implications as well.
  • This Idea Is Brilliant: Lost, Overlooked, and Underappreciated Scientific Concepts Everyone Should Know (3.5/5) Some ideas: (1) illusion of explanatory depth: "most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do," (2) determinism: "all matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics," (3) comparative advantage, (4) J.B.S. Haldane's rule of the right size: “Comparative anatomy is largely the story of the struggle to increase surface in proportion to volume.” The essay about the Reynolds number was written by George Dyson, son of Freeman Dyson, who wrote a book about his rediscovery of Aleutian Indian kayak design and also a history of the invention of the computer.
  • Owls: Our Most Charming Bird (2.5/5) Watercolor cartoons of owls along with silly, whimsical descriptions. I didn't really think he did the owls justice. As someone on Goodreads pointed out, the descriptions had a lot of "weird anthropomorphic metaphors". A better bet for owls is a good guide.
  • Christmas Stories (Everyman's Library) (2.5/5) As with any short story collection, some were better than others. Enjoyed The Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle and Bella Fleace Gave a Party by Evelyn Waugh. (Turns out that one was made into a short film.
  • The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge (Revised and Expanded Edition) (2/5) The author is a Communist sympathizer - he dedicates the book to the International Brigades! He describes the prelude to the SCW as a "gradual and immensely complex division of the country into two broadly antagonistic social blocks." I did not know much about those factions. He says that, "from the very first days of the Republic right-wing extremists disseminated the idea that an alliance of Jews, Freemasons and the working class Internationals was conspiring to destroy Christian Europe, with Spain as a principal target." In contrast the Nationalists were Catholics (worried about the brutal anti-clericalism of the left) and people with property. "The triumph or defeat of the military coup followed the electoral geography of the country." "Had we no sewers in Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao, all these Red leaders would have died in their infancy instead of exciting the rabble and causing good Spanish blood to flow. When the war is over, we should destroy the sewers." Spaniards caught "behind enemy lines" - in territory where people like them were not in firm control - were in big trouble once the war broke out. It is questionable whether the Nationalists would have succeeded without ample assistance from Italy and Germany - as it was, the war took three years for them to win. Franco moved very slowly, eliminating leftists in detail along the way - "which was to be one of his greatest sources of strength after 1939." Franco: "I will occupy Spain town by town, village by village, railway by railway... Nothing will make me abandon this gradual programme. It will bring me less glory but greater internal peace. [...] I am not interested in territory but in inhabitants. The reconquest of the territory is the means, the redemption of the inhabitants the end." The Republicans were armed by the Soviet Union, so this was a proxy war that anticipated WWII. Nationalists had some foreign volunteers as well, although not like the scale of the International Brigades: "the ferociously anti-semitic Romanian Iron Guard sent eight volunteers..." Stalin needed the most revolutionary Spanish Republicans to tone it down so as not to drive a wedge between the USSR and France/Britain; this led to a lot of intra-Republican violence, which was a problem the Nationalists did not have. "Soviet policy on Spain was constrained by Stalin's search for Western allies against Hitler. Accordingly, Russian help had to ensure that political and social developments in Spain would stop short at the maximum which French and British policy-makers would tolerate." The Trotskyist party in Spain (POUM) "made itself even more of a target by dint of its outspoken public criticism of the trial and execution of the old Bolsheviks Kamanev and Zinoviev." You can visit Franco's Valle de los CaĆ­dos monument (see photo) to the SCW near Madrid.
  • Baidarka: The Kayak (4.5/5) Rediscovery of Aleutian Indian kayaks by boat designer and author George Dyson - the son of physicist Freeman Dyson. The forward is written by Kenneth Brower, the author of a profile of Dyson father and son called The Starship & the Canoe. [Freeman's father was composer George Dyson, which makes three generations with Wikipedia pages. Being accomplished enough to have a Wikipedia page must be hereditary.] The opening paragraph is fantastic: "Two distinct groups of people made the shores of the eastern North Pacific their home: those who built dugout canoes and those who built skin boats. All the contrasts between virgin rain forest and barren island were reflected in their opposing techniques, yet the resulting vessels displayed equally sparse and graceful lines. The dugout builders took an enormous chunk of wood and eliminated everything, down to splinters, that was not essential to their definition of a boat. The skin boat people, working in reverse, began their boats from splinters, piecing together a framework that delineated the bare minimum of their vessel. The dugout, of living cedar, was a creature of the forest. The baidarka, of driftwood, whalebone, and sea-lion skin, was entirely a creature of the sea. The skin boat was a circumpolar concept. Along all northern coastlines, and on inland waterways as well, these craft ranges southward as far as materials, climate, and hostile forest-dwellers would permit." An early observer of the baidarka: "The hatches are so fat apart that lovers cannot indulge in osculatory or other demonstrations of affection." Another quote: "In mountaineering there is a proverb, 'Never step on anything you can step over, and never step over anything you can step around.'" About his massive baidarka, the Mount Fairweather: "If the Aleuts had conquered the Russians and everybody after the Russians, if the Aleutian culture had become dominant in the world, if an Aleut Pentagon had gone into building long-range strategic warships, then the warships would have looked something like this." About kayaking" a series of lengthy intervals spent watching distant headlands, islands, or landmarks grow slowly closer by degree, the intervals punctuated by those moments when you actually round the headland, pass the island, or reach the distant shore. And then the next objective comes into equally distant view."

1 comment:

CP said...

Speaking of the baidarka skin boats, from James C Scott / Against the Grain:

"That states would have come to dominate the archaeological and historical record is no mystery... A great deal of archaeology and history throughout the world is state-sponsored and often amounts to a narcissistic exercise in self-portraiture. Compounding this institutional bias is the archaeological tradition [...] of excavation and analysis of major historical ruins. Thus if you built, monumentally, in stone and left your debris conveniently in a single place, you were likely to be "discovered" and dominate the pages of history. If, on the other hands, you built with wood, bamboo, or reeds, you were much less likely to appear in the archaeological record. And if you were hunter-gatherers or nomads, however numerous, spreading your biodegrade able trash thinly across the landscape, you were likely to vanish entirely from the archaeological record."