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The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe
by Roger Penrose
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.66
129 used & new from $4.25

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A phenomenal achievement, May 16, 2007
Many writers of math and physics textbooks, unfortunately, tend to explain things in an excessively formal manner, without providing much in the way of intuition or motivation. On the other end of the spectrum, books for the general public tend to provide interesting mental pictures, but it's difficult to tell how these correspond to rigorous mathematical ideas -- or whether the metaphors have been "dumbed down" for mass consumption.

Roger Penrose, like Richard Feynman, is one of those rare authors who can communicate difficult ideas clearly and intuitively, but doesn't shy away from equations and mathematical rigor either. As a math Ph.D, I had already "learned" about principal bundles, connections, and curvature from a formal point of view, but I feel that this book helped me *truly* understand them for the first time. A full appreciation of this book requires a great deal of mathematical sophistication, but Penrose has made this material more accessible than it has ever been, and has put in something for (almost) everyone.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto)
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto)
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.62
380 used & new from $0.01

146 of 160 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A disappointing follow-up to "Fooled by Randomness", May 10, 2007
I'm a mathematician and former trader, and I've always enjoyed Taleb's work, from his technical tome on derivatives, "Dynamic Hedging," to the brilliant "Fooled by Randomness." These books provided a healthy dose of empirical skepticism about a field that sometimes gets carried away with its own "precise" models -- as well as some insightful commentary on why people are bad at recognizing randomness and making predictions, and how we should be wary of charlatans (and fools) trying to sell us false certainty, especially about financial markets. Unfortunately, "The Black Swan" doesn't say much that "Fooled by Randomness" didn't already say (and say better), and I was disappointed by most of the new material.

First, Taleb's ideas on uncertainty have gone a bit over the edge. Before, he denounced the poor use of over-simplified models (i.e. the bell curve) to model uncertainty; he now seems to have given up on models altogether (save for a brief and justified nod to Benoit Mandelbrot). Rather than just attack bad science, and encourage better science in its place, he seems to view the entire scientific enterprise as hopeless -- adopting the somewhat anti-intellectual attitude that we should stop trying to "understand" markets at all, and be more like Fat Tony, the trader from Brooklyn. His portrayal of mathematical finance types is a complete caricature, which is amusing because, whether he likes it or not, he's one of them! (Taleb has taught in the mathematical finance program at NYU's prestigious Courant Institute.) The idea that mainstream academics are too myopic to see beyond their bell-curve models is laughable, and in many cases, decades out of date -- even undergrads learn about the flaws in the Black-Scholes model, and the problem of "fat tails."

While "Fooled by Randomness" suggests (wisely) that we pay attention to the magnitude of events and not just their probabilities, in "The Black Swan" he throws out probability altogether. This results in some bizarre advice, such as that people should structure their lives (and financial portfolios) to capture "positive black swans," i.e. huge but unlikely turns of good fortune, because "unlikely" is a meaningless probabilistic notion. For example, he suggests that people should put 90% of their assets in extremely safe instruments (like T-bills), while gambling the remaining 10% on risky ventures and hoping to hit it big. He claims that this limits one's downside while waiting for a big windfall ... but what happens when the "risky" 10% gets wiped out in a year or two? Do you then start investing your remaining assets (possibly losing more), or do you just stick with low-yield T-bills for the rest of your life? Taleb seemingly hasn't thought it out that far. By the "positive black swan" logic, thousands of unemployed "actors," waiting for that big break that never comes, have the right idea -- not to mention people who waste their money on lottery tickets (hey, the downside is only a buck, but the upside is millions!). This seems to be a complete reversal from "Fooled by Randomness," which had a brighter view of skilled ("Mediocristan") pursuits like dentistry, where one avoids living at the behest of good or bad fortune altogether.

Finally, Taleb has always exuded snobbery in his writing -- in the past it has almost been charming -- but this time it quickly wears out its welcome. He never fails to remind the reader that he sees himself as an erudite "gentleman trader," a rogue philosopher among philistines and eggheads. Yawn.

I still give this book 3 stars, because it does have some decent content, but read "Fooled by Randomness" instead. If you've already read that book, there's no need to buy this one -- but if you're in the mood to read about the problems of uncertainty and prediction in the markets, check out "When Genius Failed" by Lowenstein, "A Random Walk Down Wall Street" by Malkiel, or (for the eggheads) "Fractals and Scaling in Finance" by Mandelbrot.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 31, 2010 10:58 AM PDT

D-Link 4-Port Wireless-G 54Mbps Router
D-Link 4-Port Wireless-G 54Mbps Router
Offered by m o r o
Price: $15.22
55 used & new from $1.00

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Buggy garbage, April 4, 2007
What a terrible product. The setup "wizard" was completely broken, the clock kept resetting the date back to 2002 (despite correcting it multiple times), and it would only allow one wireless connection at a time -- when one computer connected, the other would get mysteriously disconnected. I wish I'd read the other reviews before buying ... this thing is going straight back to the store.

LOST - The Game
LOST - The Game
Offered by MyDads Attic
Price: $25.00
41 used & new from $10.44

12 of 19 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Terrible - What were they thinking?, January 1, 2007
This review is from: LOST - The Game (Toy)
My wife and I are both huge "Lost" fans, and we were thrilled to get this game as a gift. However, this game is absolutely *terrible*: the directions are unreadable, the gameplay incomprehensible ... this clearly is the brainchild of some marketing doofus who thought that people would buy anything with "Lost" stamped on the box, while actually having a playable game inside the box was an afterthought.

Let me give just a few examples of how little thought went into the game and its (supposed) directions. To set up the board, players are instructed to arrange 16 "location tiles" in a 4x4 grid. The trouble is, the location tiles are *hexagons* -- you can't arrange hexagons into a square 4x4 grid! Right off the bat, we had no idea how to set up the board. Confusingly, the game also includes starting "hex tiles", which despite their name, have 4 (not 6) sides. Feeling frustrated, and looking for more detailed instructions, we went to the game's official website. These "improved" instructions created as much frustration as they cleared up ... for example, referring to the 6-sided pieces as *octagons*. Did anyone even try to play this game before it left the factory (or the planning stages, for that matter)?

Assuming one is able to follow the confusing, contradictory, and mathematically impossible instructions, one has to contend with (a) 2 different kinds of 6-sided ("octagon") tiles, (b) a bunch of 4-sided ("hex") tiles, (c) a deck of character cards, (d) a deck of "fate" cards, (e) dice, (f) a coin, (g) plastic "player" pieces to move around the board ... the list goes on. The rules for manipulating this myriad of objects make the tax code look simple by comparison.

It's a real shame. They could have made a fun, simple Lost-themed board game: say, a trivia game, or a Chutes-and-Ladders style game. I'd like to think that this game was designed carelessly by mental incompetents, or marketers (but I repeat myself), as opposed to intentionally made this way by sadists -- but honestly, I can't be sure.

The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
by Anthony Bourdain
Edition: Hardcover
191 used & new from $0.01

8 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Misleading and Disappointing, June 13, 2006
Judging by the title, the simultaneously heartwarming and stomach-churning opening story (about killing and eating raw seal with an Inuit family), and the publicity surrounding this book, I guess I expected something different. I expected this to be a book about Bourdain's gonzo culinary adventures, an ode to the "nasty bits" that most people wouldn't dare eat, about pushing the gastronomic envelope and loving it. After all, Bourdain is famously a man who has eaten cobra heart (still beating), iguana, and other unmentionables for his show "A Cook's Tour." In his other books, he has lamented and pitied the poor souls who aren't adventurous enough to enjoy tripes, organ meats, snouts -- or the local oddities of whatever corner of the world he finds himself in.

Unfortunately, this book has very little to do with the "nasty bits" of food at all. Instead, it's just a compilation of short articles -- most of which, I suspect, are previously published -- and it feels cobbled together. Here's an article about celebrity chefs; here's another about Bourdain's love affair with all things mafia; here's one about failing restaurants; here's one bashing vegans, raw foodists, and Woody Harrelson. It's completely disjointed -- and frankly, for a guy who has become known for tucking in to the exotic and bizarre in search of great food experiences, it's pretty boring.

If you've never read anything by Bourdain, and thus don't have the kind of expectations I did, you might enjoy this book (although you'd probably be better off with "Kitchen Confidential"). But if you're expecting "The Continuing Adventures of Anthony Bourdain, Bold and Fearless Eater" -- which is how this book is being misleadingly marketed -- save your money.

The Minimalist Cooks Dinner: More Than 100 Recipes for Fast Weeknight Meals and Casual Entertaining
The Minimalist Cooks Dinner: More Than 100 Recipes for Fast Weeknight Meals and Casual Entertaining
by Mark Bittman
Edition: Hardcover
143 used & new from $0.01

21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good idea -- BAD recipes, October 10, 2005
I'm a fairly novice cook, but I can follow a recipe as well as anyone, and I've had excellent results from other cookbooks. I just CANNOT get anything from this cookbook to taste good, and after patiently trying several different recipes (some multiple times), I have completely given up on it. My best results were passable; the worst were inedible.

The yogurt marinade for the "Tandoori Chicken" was absolutely atrocious, and tasted nothing like real Indian food. Cooking times are consistently off -- if Bittman tells you that your chicken will be cooked through in 5 minutes, expect it to still be raw after 10. Furthermore, the recipes may be "simple" in the sense of having few ingredients and short cooking times, but they are not at all durable. Give your dish a bit too much time or heat (even if it's what the recipe calls for!) and you end up with an inedible hunk of leather.

Tonight was my final attempt. Cook minced onions on high heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally? Mine were carbonized in 3 minutes, and I just gave up and called in for pizza.

If you have plenty of cooking experience, and can improvise successfully around a recipe that's simply a rough outline -- rather than, well, a recipe -- then you may get decent results from this book. However, if you're the type of cook who expects to follow a recipe to the letter and get good food, then stay away from this book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 27, 2011 8:50 AM PST

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