Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Quote

"In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it."  Clay Shirky, "Napster, Udacity, and the Academy"

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: 25 Recipes for Getting Started with R by Paul Teetor; O'Reilly Media

Cover image

25 Recipes for Getting Started with R by Paul Teetor is a little book of examples that solve particular problems using R. What's "R" you ask? Well, then this isn't the book for you, despite its "Getting Started" moniker. I knew that R was a hot new thing (program or programming language or environment or something) that people were using to do neat stuff with data and statistics. But I wanted to know more and this seemed like a good book start with. I should have read the Preface a bit more carefully as it clearly says:
This book is not a tutorial on R, although you will learn something by studying the recipes. The book is not an introduction to statistics either.
Those are both important caveats. While I know slightly more about R than I used to, I'm still looking to "get started" using R. The problem here, to be fair to to Teetor, is probably the publisher's (which it pains me to say since I love them so and I got this book for free in order to review it). This book is a set of excerpts from a larger book of recipes called the "R Cookbook." That book probably makes sense to buy if you've already gotten your start with R and want some guidance on how to solve problems using R. The "25 Recipes" book is too short (only 44 pages of actual "recipes", the first 6 pages of which cover installing and getting help on the web) to provide more than a very cursory overview. More troubling is that some of the explanations within the recipes seem truncated. I'm guessing that's because they refer to recipes in the full book that weren't included here. For example, Problem 1.10 carefully explains that, depending on how you select a column you might get a "vector" or a "data frame" returned. While most people reading a book about R are probably going to be able to intuit the distinction it still would have been helpful to have thrown in a "recipe" about it.  But of course, that would be more of a "tutorial" which this book states that it is not. As a positive, the book does cover the main things you'd want to know (basic statistical function, basic plotting/graphing, regressions). But it's hard to imagine that there aren't free alternatives on the web that get you at least as far. In sum, I like the idea behind the book but couldn't recommend this version. Perhaps the full "R Cookbook" is the way to go.
Find the book here:
o I review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Book Review: The End of Wall Street

 The End of Wall Street
by Roger Lowenstein
I am slowly but surely making my way through books about the financial crisis. Having had a view from, well, if not the front row then at least the bleachers I find reading multiple accounts interesting in order to compare characterizations and conclusions.
Roger Lowenstein has been writing books about high finance for a while and one might expect that his book about the financial crisis would be his masterpiece. Yet, although I did like this book, The End of Wall Street is not the best book on the crisis-it's not even the best book on the crisis written by Lowenstein, but that statement takes some explanation.
Lowenstein's book is great in the early going. He nails the causes and consequences of the subprime crisis. His descriptions of the mania, greed, and silliness of the whole housing bubble wil make you see red. But then End of Wall Street begs a question that is very hard to answer: did the subprime crisis cause the financial crisis? Was it a necessary condition or merely a sufficient one? Or was it not a cause at all, but a result of bigger trends happening on Wall Street that would necessarily, sooner or later, find their way into the one large asset class that most Americans hold?
At some level, it's unfair to expect Lowenstein or any other author to answer all of these questions just yet. And in terms of the raw information of the story, it's all there in the book. But that's part of the problem. Having read Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail Which is 900 pages on just the direct events of the meltdown, Lowenstein's final chapters on the great bailout of '08 seems both abbreviated and too dense. Sorkin gives us the human story of Wall Street and the government, Lowenstein has a much harder time fitting in the characters, facts, and explanations of financial esoterica in the small space he reserved for the denouement. For this reason, I stalled out about 2/3ds of the way through the book. Lowenstein isn't the zippiest writer anyway, but it is hard to imagine a short summary of the crisis reading like anything other than a newspaper article. There's a reason Sorkin needed his 900 pages; this thing was epic.
Yet oftentimes epics can be encapsulated in smaller stories, even anecdotes, There was a precursor to this crisis, and that was the collapse of the hedge find Long term Capital Management in the late 1990s. Lowenstein's book on that episode, "When Genius Failed" is the book I'm thinking of when I say he's written a better account of the 2008 crisis. I've already reviewed that book so I won't rehash everything but the takeaways are striking. Wall Street demonstrated a decade before this crisis that it was willing to stake system-destroying amounts of borrowed money on flawed-mathematical-modeled trades. And government showed it would step in if needed. LTCM seemed like a major crisis at the time but in retrospect it was just a prelude.
And so, in a sense, maybe Lowenstein's first book on LTCM answers the question his book on the 2008 crisis does not. Subprime loans were a debacle all there own to be sure. But Wall Street was heading down a path of destruction that would inevitably wend its way past tech stocks, Russian bonds, and Asian currencies into our very homes. We were warned.

Book Review: Examined Lives

I'm not sure that I should have titled this post a "Book Review." I enjoyed abut 2/5ths of this book but in some ways it's a bit like reviewing an issue of a magazine. That is, the book looks at the lives of various philosophers and compares that person's philosophy with how he lived his life. When it came to the Greeks there was some real correspondence between life lived and philosophy espoused. Plato and Aristotle both even tutored young princes (the latter's pupil was Alexander the Great) though not to the effect either philosopher might have hoped. Seneca and Montaigne were also interesting, but after that philosophy became too abstract and there isn't much in the lives of the philosophers to hold one's interest. Whatever one thinks of his ideas, Kant didn't lead a very interesting life. It's a shame because when the book works one does come away with a better understanding of a particular person's views but when it doesn't work it means slogging through an uninteresting mini-biography. I would recommend reading the book but skipping ahead liberally when it gets boring.

Book Review: Then We Came to the End

I wanted to like this book. But I didn't. I thought I was enjoying it for a while; it is clever and well-written. But by about page 100 I was tired of clever and well-written and funny observations about work life. I get it, I'm employed. The major plot themes move too slowly and the book is written in the first person plural ("we") which, for me, meant I never quite got attached to any of the characters. First person plural isn't done much in novels, it's considered very hard. I can see why because even though, as I said, the book was well written, I kept feeling like it was being told from the point of view of a particular person who never let us hear what he or she was thinking. Who is this "we" and why don't "we" ever say what "we're" thinking? And then I realized that, by definition, "we" is all of the characters in the book and I don't like any of them. So I stopped reading the book. There's a middle section (written more conventionally as "she") that was well done and somewhat more engaging. And then I skipped to the end. And the was nice but there's like, 278 pages from where I stopped to the end and I didn't really miss anything. So there you have it. Read 100 pages; skip to page 196 and read for, like, 30 more page, and then read the end. Or just let this book go even though it was highly regarded by reviewers.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Review: Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun

 Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun is a catalog of, well, myths about how people come up with innovative ideas or products.  Each chapter covers a different myth, like the "myth of ephinany" (that innovative ideas come like lightning bolts out of the blue) or the myth of the "lone inventor."  Berkun busts these myths and in the process explains what really does drive innovation.

I liked that the book is written in a witty, conversational style (and having gotten the book free through O'Reilly's Blogger review program I wanted to give a good review). But unfortunately I found it to be poorly argued. For example, Berkun writes, "And while we laugh at groups who reject innovation as a concept—the Luddites, the Amish, or our technophobic friends—we are all just as resistant as they are, but in different ways." Realy? I read this book on an iPhone, iPad and Sony Reader and I'm just as resistant to innovation as the Amish? I'm sorry Mr. Berkun, but you need to back that up with something. Unfortunately, the book is filled with tossed off conclusions that are not supported by data or argument. It took me a long time to finish this book because it kept driving me crazy.

Find the book here: review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program