One Up on Wall Street

Yeah, I never thought I’d be reading books about the stock market, much less admitting this publicly. Yet here I am, shouting “Hooray for Peter Lynch” from the rooftop of my SF flat. If you’re thinking about investing, read this book. If you already are investing and feel slightly clueless about your actions, read this book. If you’re confident in your abilities as an investor, read this book. Nothing dry and boring in this classic; the tone is friendly, engaging, and extremely readable.
Notes:
Individual investors have advantage over Wall St. b/c they can buy companies they see in their daily lives as up-and-comers. (i.e. The Limited clothing store circa 1982)
Final Checklist
Stocks in General
– P/E ratio: high or low for this company, compare it to similar cos in same industry
– % institutional ownership: lower the better
– are insiders buying? is company buying back own shares? good sign
– record of earnings growth to date, are earnings sporadic or consistent?
– strong balance sheet (debt to equity ratio)
– cash position

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21 dog years

A fluffy commentary on dot com grunt work. Since I am still in the midst of this dot com rush, I would expect there to be more details I could identify with. But Amazon.com appears very different from the .com I’ve slaved for the last 3 years. They build their desks out of doors, man. Wow.
Memorable parts: the sharing of desk space in the CS arena. The 12 hour shifts that would allow others to use ‘your’ desk area for their shift. The 2 hour delivery of items you ordered from the Amazon website. Talking the talk and getting out of CS and into Biz Dev. Imploding the Kingdome as a metaphor for the economic implosion.
Not recommended.

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1421

Aren’t we lucky that Menzies is confident in his ability to reconstruct 400 year old history based solely on his ability to read old maps? I read 150 pages of this crap then skimmed the rest, looking at the maps and photo inserts. Due to its blahness, I won’t bother to come up with original comments, but leave criticism in the hands of the experts:
From Publisher’s Weekly:
“The amateur historian’s lightly footnoted, heavily speculative re-creation of little-known voyages made by Chinese ships in the early 1400s goes far beyond what most experts in and outside of China are willing to assert and will surely set tongues wagging. According to Menzies’s brazen but dull account of the Middle Kingdom’s exploits at sea, Magellan, Dias, da Gama, Cabral and Cook only “discovered” lands the Chinese had already visited, and they sailed with maps drawn from Chinese charts. Menzies alleges that the Chinese not only discovered America, but also established colonies here long before Columbus set out to sea. Because China burned the records of its historic expeditions led by Zheng He, the famed eunuch admiral and the focus of this account, Menzies is forced to defend his argument by compiling a tedious package of circumstantial evidence that ranges from reasonable to ridiculous. While the book does contain some compelling claims-for example, that the Chinese were able to calculate longitude long before Western explorers-drawn from Menzies’s experiences at sea, his overall credibility is undermined by dubious research methods. In just one instance, when confounded by the derivation of cryptic words on a Venetian map, Menzies first consults an expert at crossword puzzles rather than an etymologist. Such an approach to scholarship, along with a promise of more proof to come in the paperback edition, casts a shadow of doubt over Menzies’s discoveries.”
In case you want more, Gavin’s set up a website.

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The Devil in the White City

Daniel Burnham’s extraordinary effort to build the White City for the Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s answer to the Parisian First World’s Fair. H. H. Holmes (nee Herman Mudgett) and his murder castle, luring single young women to their deaths by chloroform and gas. The Chicago fair of 1893 brought hordes of people to the city, keeping the Chicago police too busy to notice the disappearance of the women.
Larson does a good job weaving the Holmes story in between the tale of the building of the Fair. Olmstead’s landscaping dreams, Walt Disney’s father working as a carpenter for the fair (and his stories no doubt influencing Walt’s later Dreamword of Disney), the first elevator unveiled, the Ferris wheel’s introduction to society.
Average wordsmithing keeps this book off my recommended list, but it is intriguing at times. To think, my high-school paper on HH Holmes and his murderous ways broached this subject 10 years ago.

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Alias Shakespeare

I’m convinced. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford wrote the plays and sonnets we attribute to the name Shakespeare.
Oxford, 1550-1604, has several strong ties to the material within the plays and Sonnets. Oxford’s uncle, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey created the sonnet form we know as Shakespearian. Oxford studied law (Shksp uses legal language throughout the plays), travelled to Italy, was a favorite of Elizabeth I.
One arguments for Oxford is a disection of Oxford’s vocabulary (as survived in several letters and a preface to a book) compared to Shakespeare’s. They both use the same words, but when Bacon is compared to Shksp, the vocabulary circles are separate.
Shakespeare was a name Oxford came up with in order to publish his love poems to the Earl of Southampton. He continued to write plays and sonnets (the sonnets were not intended for publication, as they were personal love poems describing love between men), and after his death Shakespeare was reinvented by the Folio of 1623 which included all of his plays. They made no mention of the first two poems for which Skspr was famous, as an attempt to distance Shksp the homosexual poet from the playwrite. Oxford could have come in contact with a man named William Shakspear from Stratford, as Oxford was active in the theatre.
If you have doubts about the authorship of the plays, read this book. The appendix includes several detailed line by line comparisions of the plays versus Oxford’s letters and poems. Shakespeare is Dead! Long live de Vere!

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The Man Who Ate Everything

This book was a treat, full of elegant writing across a broad canvas of food, cooking, and eating. Composed of forty essays pulled from Steingarten’s regular column in /Vogue/, Steingaren’s prose is crisp and well-paced and never once let me down. While some topics were more interesting and develeoped than others, there is a constant curiosity and passion for capturing food and the ways we prepare and eat it.
Steingarten has a scientist’s eye for detail and immerses himself in thorough, sometimes fanciful, research and self-experimentation. He provides exacting accounts of regional cuisines (of France, Japan, North Africa, Memphis, and more), diet trends and food industry myths, and specific foods (from mashed potatoes to salt to ketchup) and food substitutes (olestra), as well a good number of recipes. Yet he always acknowledges his own tastes and sensations, keeping the essays moving with an energy and consistency that I did not think existed in 20th century magazine publishing. Nor did I realize that media coverage of the “French Paradox” originated with Steingarten in 1991.
Stand-outs include pieces on the Paris /Haut Bistros/, Kyoto cuisine, fruit and ripeness, /le regime Montignac/, and truffle hunting in rural Italy.
Also see Alexander Chancellor’s [New York Times review http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9907E4DA143AF934A35751C1A961958260] from December 7, 1997

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Jarhead

Who’d have thought that a book written by a Marine would be so … good. The typical “military intelligence” oxymoron comes to mind, but this book was well written and smart. I’ll be looking out for Swofford’s future offerings.
Gulf war veteran describes boredom of seven months preparation for war and the disappointment of a week of actual war. Sand sand sand and pornography and girlfriends cheating and the childhood of a military brat moving around and the huge mistake it was to sign his life away at age 17 to the Marines. The friends and drinking and playing of poker, the marching and pushups and boot camp. Read it.

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Bringing Down the House

Ehh. Writing style of Mr. Mezrich leaves much to be desired. However, he was handed a story wrapped up with a bow on top, and didn’t ruin it. This non fiction story follows a group of MIT whiz kids on a tour of Vegas, Atlantic City, riverboat casinos, and details their team card counting. With spotters making minimum bets at tables and signalling the BPs (big players) in to the table when the count is favorable, the teams make millions on the blackjack table. They stagger through airport security with wads of cash (50k) strapped to their bodies then begin their transformation from geek to high rollers in the restroom. The basic strategy is a hi-lo system of assigning a +1 count to all cards from 2-6 and a -1 count of 10-A. The amount of cards gone from the shoe is also factored in to generate a true count. When the count is high, it’s time to drop big bets.

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Krakatoa

Superb, fantastic, excellent, thoroughly enjoyable! Winchester disappointed me slightly with his last book, The Map that Changed the World, but he has redeemed himself hugely with Krakatoa. As always, Winchester pays careful attention to the underpinnings of his story. Details range from the origination of plate tectonics (Alfred Wegener) and Winchester’s own Artic ash sample collecting to the unsung hero Alfred Russel Wallace coming up with the term ‘survial of the fittest’ and helping the procrastinator Charles Darwin find the missing pieces to his Origins of Species.
As one reviewer noted, Krakatoa lurks on the edges of most of the narrative, looming in the background as a constant presence. I actually read the whole book and several chapters delve deeply into the subject of Krakatoa and its explosion. The force from the August 27th, 1883 explosion caused two massive sea-waves (tsunamis) to overtake the surrounding coasts of Java and Sumatra, causing 35,000 casualties. Sound waves from the explosion travelled around the world seven times.
Krakatoa was the most explosive volcanic eruption in recorded time, and happened during a point in world history when news travelled fast (telegraph), so the global village was apprised of the eruption within days, if not hours of the event. So too, the dust/ash fallout of the explosion lingered in sunsets around the world for up to 3 years afterwards.
This book is a masterful production, with careful attention to evey pertinant detail. The construction and design of the book is equally delightful: the red lava of the hardcover not entirely covered by the 1/2 dustjacket with a depiction of Krakatoa from the September 1883 Harper’s Weekly. The drawings at the front of each chapter show Krakatoa in various stages, from dormant peaceful island with boats sailing by, to erupting fury, to a drawing of the missing island after it has blown itself up.
One of my favorite parts was the section on plate tectonics, detailing the creation of the Hawaiian Islands. Each island is a remnant of volcanic activity over the same hot spot, but the movement of the plate drifts each island away from the thermal vent, resulting in a chain of islands clearly depicting continental drift.

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Women About Town

I like to give the ladies a chance. However, Jacobs’ book turned out to be a fluffy quick beach read. Eye candy, of sorts. The characters of Iris and Lana were delightful, and 100 pages in I was enjoying the read. But when Iris, the model of a single, independent 40ish woman, ended the story hand in hand with the her perfect guy, my mind rejected this book.
Lana and Iris know OF each other, through their mutual friend Deena. They meet when Lana interviews Iris for Vanity Fair, detailing Iris’ showing of artistic nests. I’m not sure why the story couldn’t have ended with the two of them hanging out about town together. But what do I know.

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A Random Walk Down Wall Street

Great guide for novice investors/peeps who don’t know what to do with their slight and tiny nest egg. One thing that stands out is the idea that an IRA is good b/c all interest, capital gains earned with it is tax deductible until you take the money out of the IRA (at which time you might be in a lower tax bracket).
Solid stuff, easily understood advice (buy stocks you want to hold onto for awhile b/c the transaction cost of buying and selling can cut into your bottom line).

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The Group

This is the book McCarthy is famous for; however, Birds of America was tremendously better. I’m not finished, but this is my early (100 pages in) opinion.
(Later:) Now I am finished and I can declare with certainty that this book was much worse than expected. I’m sure it was quite daring for McCarthy to deal with topics such as rape, lesbians, divorce, etc. at the time. She seems a little too pleased with herself for this daring. Overlooking its flaws, the story was constructed solidly, detailing the deterioration of a group of college friends over an eight year period after graduation. Unfortunately, the solidity of the structure does not make up for the tedium of the subjects.
The story begins with Kay and Harald’s ill-fated wedding, and ends with Kay’s funeral. In between, Libbie succeeds in publishing, Priss has a baby and resents her hubby’s attitude toward her, Lakey lives in Europe and returns 8 years later with her wife, Maria. Norrine has an affair with Harald and is a miserable housekeeper. Dottie loses her heart (among other things) to an artist before finding refuge as the wife of a Western rancher. Blech, boring. Polly’s story was the more interesting, moving from love affair with married Gus to caring for her manic depressive father, to marrying a doctor in the hospital she worked in.

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Salt

An excellent history of salt beginning in early China and weaving through ancient Rome, Israel, US Civil War, US Revolutionary War, Italy, France, Sweden, Hawaii, Ghandi’s India, Liverpool, Bahamas, Poland, Salzburg, Avery Island, San Francisco. The story also touches on the Morton Salt Company buying up little saltworks and becoming the world’s largest salt company. “When it rains, it pours.” Salt is ubiquitous and often overlooked as an important facet of life. Animals (humans included) would die without salt.

Some fun facts about salt:

  • the word salary comes from the Latin salarius, of salt. Roman soldiers received salt as their pay.
  • olives were experimented with for centuries before it was found that soaking them in brine (salted water) made them edible
  • Avery Island (home of Tabasco sauce) sits on a salt dome
  • a Carlsbad, NM salt mine is being prepared to contain nuclear waste that will remain toxic for 240,000 more years
  • in the 1970’s, emergency oil reserves were stored in salt domes around the Gulf of Mexico
  • in the early 17th century, the Polish salt mine was used to entertain visitors: the walls, ceiling, floor, chandeliers and statues in the mine were all made from salt.
  • The World Health Organization & Unicef urged salt producers to add iodine to their salt to prevent goiter, a thyroid gland enlargement.
  • in 18th century England, anchovy sauce became known as ketchup, which derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan. Ketchup became a tomato sauce in the US, as tomatoes are native to America.
  • soy sauce originally was fish fermented in salt, or jiang. In China, soybeans were added to ferment with the fish and in time fish were dropped from the recipe, resulting in jiangyou, or soy sauce.

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The God of Nightmares

Hooray for Paula! Once again her words leave me feeling light and happy.
Shortly after news of her father’s death, Helen escapes the confines of her early life. She leaves her mother and upstate NY and travels to New Orelans to bring her aunt Lulu back to NY to help her mother run the cabin business. In New Orleans, Helen falls into a trance of soft humid Southerness, where she meets her future husband Len, and her close friend Nina. Also Claude, the gentleman who prefered boys, who ends up dead beneath the Dueling Oaks. And Gerald and Catherine, the couple with whom Helen boards. Gerald a poet who was beaten by his Cajun neighbors for exposing their way of life to the world. Lulu’s drunkenness and divorce from Sam Bridges, with whom Nina has an affair. Nina describing her life as ‘floating by’, and drinking from the “Colored” fountain out of mild defiance. Part 1 is full of violence and chaos, yet leaves no blood on your mind.
Part 2 fast-forwards 20+ years to the 1960s when Helen and Len are living in NYC and renovating her mother’s old house after her death. Helen runs into Nina in the city, then mentions it later to Len, who acts strangely and admits to having been involved with Nina back in the day. Ends very sweetly with Helen waiting for Len to wake up from a long sleep.

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