I’ve pretty much been on the road all month. Right now I’m in Colorado right between a three day intensive meeting at our sous vide warehouse and heading up to Vail to give a talk at the low carb conference there. After that, it’s off again. Won’t be back home for another couple of weeks, but the long six week travel stretch will be over.
The first part of this trip was to Cape Town, SA and Frankfurt, Germany. Both were business trips, but both ended up in my acquiring collectible books I want to gloat about.
Flashman. First, a little history. When I bolted from engineering to the biological sciences I started out on a Ph.D. course in pharmacology, the study of drugs and their actions. I ultimately veered from that into medical school, but a Ph.D. program was where I started. There was an older prof in the pharmacology department at the time I was there who was kind of strange. He kept apart from most everyone else, was single and lived alone, had a sudden booming laugh, didn’t practice the greatest hygiene and was ridiculed by the grad students for some of his other peculiar eccentricities. Somehow I discovered he was a great reader and had a large personal library, so, even though he wasn’t my advisor, I paid him a visit to broach the subject of books. I asked him to recommend some of his favorite books and was surprised to learn the first book he touted was Flashman followed by the other books in the Flashman series. I was surprised because I fancied myself quite the reader, and I couldn’t believe there was a series of books out there as good as this guy said they were that I had not only not read, but hadn’t even heard of.
I made my way to the local bookstore, which of course did not have a copy of Flashman, and ordered one. When I finally picked it up I headed to the local hamburger place to grab some lunch and started reading. I sat there all afternoon. I was absolutely transfixed. I almost hate to say how much I love these books because they are not everyone’s cup of tea. If you read one, and it’s not your thing, I’m a little worried about what you might think of me thereafter. I suspect it will be kind of like Facebook friending someone you’ve always thought as normal only to discover when you start reading his posts that he’s a psycho.
Flashman made his first appearance in literature in the English classic Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a novel about school life in an English public (actually private) school. The book is told from the perspective of the underclassmen referred to at the time as fags (with no homosexual connotations). The fags were bullied by the upperclassmen much in the way pledges are bullied in college fraternities today. One of the most loathsome upperclassmen from the fags’ perspective was Harry Flashman, who made their lives miserable. It was a happy day for the fags when a drunken Flashman was expelled by the headmaster Matthew Arnold.
George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman series of books, called collectively the Flashman Papers, picked up Flashman after his expulsion and carried him forward from there. Harry Flashman is a true anti hero, but a funny one. He has a few good things going for him. He is big and bluff (as he refers to himself) and good looking with a fine set of whiskers (which he calls his “tart catchers”). He has a facility with languages, which he picks up easily, and he is an expert horseman. And that’s about it on the good side the ledger. To offset his minimal virtues, Flashy (as he calls himself) is a coward, a poltroon, a weasel, a liar, a con man, a seducer, a schemer and worse.
Fraser, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of British military history of the mid-to-late 1800s, puts Flashy in one dangerous situation after another. The very last place Flashy wants to be. The first book, Flashman, which has to be read first, gets Flashy by a series of unfortunate events brought about by his own cowardice, ensconced in Afghanistan during the first British battle there that ended in a total rout for the Brits. You learn a lot about Afghanistan, that battle and why it’s still a tough place today. And you learn it while standing side by side with Flashy as he tries to figure out how to save his own worthless hide. All the books are hilariously funny and all, strangely enough, liberally footnoted. Fraser manages to get Flashman inserted in all these situations in which the historical record is not absolutely clear about what really happened. Fraser makes Flashy the agent of whatever happened, usually with disastrous and hilarious consequences.
Give Flashman a try. If you’ve got any kind of sense of humor and a love for history you will, as I did, read them one after the other until gone. I can still quote verbatim from many of the Flashman books. Be sure to start with Flashman, though. If you grab one in the middle of the series, you’ll feel like you came in in the middle of a strange movie. So if you’re going to take the plunge, start at the start.
Since I loved the Flashman books so much, I’ve always wanted to get a first edition, first printing of the Brit version (the true first edition) of Flashman, but I’ve never wanted to fork over the several hundred dollars booksellers asked. I stumbled into a small used bookstore in Cape Town and found one for a mere 75 bucks. I grabbed that sucker in a heartbeat. (See photo above.)
Mein Kampf. This one is strange. Several months ago I read an article in the Guardian about how the German language copyright to Hitler’s only book, Mein Kampf, was running out in January 2016. The German government had owned the copyright since the end of WWII and had refused to allow the book to be published in German. With the copyright coming to an end, a small German WWII research organization decided to bring out the first edition in German since the war. Many people were outraged, so the publishing company decided to just start with a very small edition of what is basically a study volume (volumes, actually, since there are two). When I heard this, my ears perked up because I figure there is an investment opportunity there. It sounded like these volumes were going to be hard to come by, which made it all the more interesting to me as a collector and as the kind of guy who loves a challenge.
I started polling my friends to see if anyone knew anyone who might be able to help me out. Turns out that a friend knew a friend and I got hooked up with an interesting guy who was born in Germany, educated in Australia and lived in Oxford. He is an aviation specialist who travels the world doing whatever it is he does. Once connected, he and I began to email back and forth. He was going to be in Germany before I got there, so he sorted out how to get on the list for the first publication run. He emailed me that he was on the list for the book and that he suspected he might, as a consequence, be on a few other lists: The Mossad, the CIA, the FBI, the KGB…
He emailed me when he got the books and warned me they were very large and very heavy. As it turned out, we were getting in to Frankfurt from Cape Town at 6:55 on the very morning he was leaving at 9 AM, so we met in a restaurant and I got the goods. I had a brief period of worry as I was racing from the plane to the restaurant because it dawned on me that I hadn’t put parameters in place about pricing, as in, don’t buy the thing if it costs a fortune. I didn’t have that much cash with me, so I was hoping the guy wouldn’t tell me I owed him 5oo Euros or something. As it turned out, it was only 59 Euros, so I escaped easily. Now I’ve got the two volume set shown here, written entirely in German, a language I can speak about ten words of. I may have the only set in the US. Who knows?
I’ve had a copy of Mein Kampf published in English for years, and I’ve tried to read it a half dozen times. I can get only 15 or 20 pages into it, though, before giving up. I don’t know if Hitler was just a crappy writer or if I have a bad translation, or both, but whatever the case, I’ve never made it far into the book. Which is strange because I’m a real WWII buff and Mein Kampf is the book that pretty much set the stage and kicked the war off.
Okay, on to recent books.
Icarus. Another Deon Meyers great Cape Town detective books featuring detective Benny Griessel. I started reading these long before I went to Cape Town for the first time. Before I went back a couple of weeks ago, I checked and found a brand new one. Icarus. I loved these books before ever going to South Africa, and now I love them even more. The trope of the alcoholic detective always struggling with drink is so overdone that it almost put me off of these books when I got the first one, but after reading the whole catalog of Meyers’s books, I’ve come to realize he deals with it better than most. These books explore the uneasy racial tension between the mishmash of races in South Africa and always have gripping plots. Unlike the Flashman books, you can pretty much pick any one of Meyers’s Benny Griessel books and dive in. I haven’t read his other books (the ones not featuring Benny Griessel), of which there are a number, so can’t comment on those. Some of the more recent ones along with Icarus are Seven Days, Cobra, and Thirteen Hours.
You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself. Written by David McRaney as an outgrowth of his popular blog. I’ve had this book lying around for a while and finally decided to pick it up and read it. It’s a valuable compendium of all the ways we fool ourselves. It’s kind of like a fun course in logic taught by a funny, clever teacher. The writing is clear and the subject is maddening because I saw myself all over the place. It’s written in small bites, each one a few pages long describing a logical fallacy. It starts with how we see ourselves and then gives us the reality. And follows up with a more in depth discussion. The chapter on the Affect Heuristic is worth the price of the book.
Here’s how he starts (and the way each chapter starts):
The Affect Heuristic
THE MISCONCEPTION: You calculate what is risky or rewarding and always choose to maximize gains while minimizing losses.
THE TRUTH: You depend on emotions to tell you if something is good or bad, greatly over estimate rewards, and tend to stick to your first impressions.
He then goes on to give examples in which we all see ourselves and know he is right. You Are Not So Smart enlightens and infuriates all at the same time. I like it because at least it will make me stop and think (or at least I hope it will) before making important decisions. I used to think I already did, but I recognized my own actions multiple times in this book, so I know I still have work to do.
Here is a great quote from Elon Musk on why regulators never back down. Even on the most stupid of regulations. It confirms my own thinking about lawyers developed over many years working with them on business deals. Years ago I read Winning Through Intimidation, a wonderful book by Robert Ringer. I thought it was long out of print, but a quick check of Amazon shows it’s still in print and available even on Kindle. In his book, Ringer keeps running into Legal Man and his Deal Killing Bag of Tricks, his shorthand, so to speak, for lawyers. Every time he starts closing in on a deal, here comes Legal Man, fully equiped with his Deal Killing Bag of Tricks. I had seen Legal Man in action many times in my own endeavors, and it got me thinking about how he was always a deal killer. I finally figured out that there is no upside for Legal Man (other than his rapacious fees) in giving the go ahead on a deal. If the deal works out, the entrepreneur makes a boat load of money and Legal Man walks away with only his fee. If the deal goes wrong, and Legal Man has put his seal of approval on it, he gets crucified. So no upside for Legal Man if the deal is a winner, but tons of downside if it’s a loser. Which makes for a situation in which Legal Man is always going to work to kill the deal. Elon Musk has figured out the same principles apply to regulators.
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–But Some Don’t. Love him or hate him, Nate Silver has had a sterling record of prediction the last few elections. His book talks about how he does it and how to think about predicting. What with all the elections coming up, he’ll be much in the news. He’s kind of got egg on his face right now because early on he predicted The Donald would fade quickly. He continued to predict Trump’s demise as Trump continued to soar in the polls. And now he’s winning all the primaries save one. It will be interesting to see how Silver continues to evaluate the election. His success or lack thereof re Trump (at least so far) should diminish his book, which discusses, among many other things, his methods of polling and reading other people’s polls. And he has the best, most succinct explanation of Bayesian analysis I’ve ever read. That alone is worth the price of the book. Bayesian analysis has been around for a couple of hundred years, but in the early-to-mid 20th century Ronald Fisher strode across the world of statistics as a colossus in much the same way Ancel Keys did later nutritionally. And he was the same kind of argumentative, combative nasty person that Keys was, and like Keys, he dominated his field. He developed the all too familiar p-value to determine statistical significance. Fisher soundly disparaged any mention of Bayes or his methods, which fell into disuse as a consequence. To this day the significance of scientific data analysis is almost always described by p-values. In my view, and in the view of many statisticians much smarter and more capable than I, Bayes is the way to go. It is much more accurate and uses what we’ve discovered already to make it even more accurate. And doesn’t allow data mining or data dredging, which is common when using p-values.
Many researchers look at huge numbers of variables in an experiment, then run an analysis on them and find the ones that just happen to have p-values less than o.o5, which is the magic number for significance, at least according to Fisher. Then they take these they find, and write the paper as if those were the ones they were looking for. This can’t be done using Bayesian methods of analysis. The only problem for a lot of people with Bayesian analysis is that they don’t understand how it works. It can’t just be dropped into an equation and cranked out to give a number that describes significance. I’ve read a number of book and articles on Bayesian analysis, and I can tell you that Silver’s book has the most succinct and easy to understand explanation I’ve ever read.
That’s about it for this month. There are a handful of other books I’ve read, but none that really make the cut for recommendation. I did read one book I’ll discuss next month. If you want to get a heads up on it, it’s Poorly Made In China by Paul Midler. It was one of the Economist’s books of the year a couple of years ago when first published, and I can tell you from bitter personal (and recent) experience the author is on the money. I’m working up a rage right now, so I’m going to quit before I dash off another thousand words in a fury.
I’m dashing off to the airport right now to grab MD, my in house proofreader, to take her up to Vail with me. I’m going to have to depend on my online proofreaders to catch all my typos, so don’t be shy about emailing me my goofs so I can get them fixed.
Till next month.
Monthly Book Reviews
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