Can you find the word in the grid?

January 9, 2016

There is a word in the grid below.

It’s a common English word, and not an abbreviation.

It runs left-right or downwards or diagonally downwards. So starting from the center Z: ZIYG, ZJWI, or ZTRF are all possible (though these are not words).  ZSFL (running diagonally upwards) is not a possibility.

Slide1Here’s the answer in rot13:

Gur jbeq vf gur bar yrggre jbeq sbe gur svefg crefba fvathyne cebabha.

Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite – Review

September 8, 2015

North Korea has perhaps the least appealing ideology in the world – a combination of the worst parts of Communism, nationalism, and Confucianism.

In this book, Suki Kim teaches English to young men from the North Korean elite, in a university sponsored by a Christian group.  The students think she is a teacher, the other faculty think she is a missionary, but she is actually a journalist gathering material for this book.

Suki is Korean-American, and so gets a little more insight into her students and the regime than her colleagues.  Unfortunately, given the regime’s paranoia, her students are extremely guarded, so this insight does not add up to much.  A typical interaction is that students say that North Korea is the best in the world at some field, but show no reaction when Suki obliquely tells them that the outside world has far surpassed them.

Suki notes that the language of North Korea is an odd mixture.  On the one hand, there is cursing even in their written language “like finding the words fuck and shit in a presidential speech or on the front page of the New York Times”.  On the other, some of their expressions are “archaic, innocent sounding, … instead of ‘developing photos’ they said ‘images waking up'”.

Isolated from both her students and her colleagues, life at the university is not much fun for Suki, and the book falls squarely into the “things you wouldn’t want to do yourself but are curious as to how they might work out” vicarious experience genre.

Should you buy this book?  The author deceives two groups, without much reflection on this.  Given her true profession, her students were quite right to be guarded, though she was careful to change identifying details.  I suspect her misdirections are journalistically acceptable, but will defer to experts in the field.

Will you enjoy this book?  This should not be the first book on North Korea you read (Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” is a good choice for that).  But if you like that first book, then you will like this one too.

Suki Kim has also written an award-winning novel, “The Interpreter” and can be found online at  The other branch of the Kim family has led the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 1948.

Finessing Trump

August 16, 2015

It’s like trying to make fun of a clown. What, are you going to make fun of his tiny car? His floppy shoes? It just doesn’t work.  (Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik)

Holkins and Krahulik weren’t talking about Donald Trump, but their observation fits.  He’s unmockable and unshameable.  Can we ignore him?  We don’t have the willpower for that.

So how do you deal with a clown?  Two ways.  The first is to make him boring.  Forget his views on women, Mexicans, or African-Americans.  Quiz him on the dullest possible details of domestic policy.  Not as a gotcha – quite the reverse.  Seriously engage him on ethanol subsidies, single transferable vote, or banking reform.  He will quip his way out of it at first, but eventually the dull will stick.

The most powerful way is by overexposure. We need not less Trump, but more and more and more – until we have heard every crazy thing he might possibly say, and he is as played out as the macarena.  The more airtime we give him, the quicker his 15 minutes will be up, and then we can get back to serious candidates like Huckabee, Cruz, and Martin O’Malley.

(Thanks to John Mount for pointing to the Holkins / Krahulik quote).

“Mother on Fire” and “The Madwoman in the Volvo”, by Sandra Tsing Loh – A Review

June 8, 2015

If you’re a devotee of obscure films and comics, you may have heard of the Mystery Men – a group of second-string blue-collar superheroes with minor powers.  They don’t have the abilities of a Superman, or the resources of an Iron Man, but they do their best.

Sandra Tsing Loh is the Mystery Woman of NPR slice-of-life observers.  She could not fill a Williamsburg theater like Ira Glass, and lacks the comfortable lifestyle of a David Sedaris, but she works hard and does her best.  Does her lack of status have anything to do with falling into an Uncanny Valley of ethnicity – not ethnic enough to be the next Amy Tan, but just “other” enough to be distracting?  But perhaps that veers into Angry Negro territory.

In the first book, “Mother on Fire”, Sandra Tsing Loh figures out school for her kids in L.A. (public or private?  magnet or bilingual?  ordinarily expensive or crippingly expensive?) with little help from her husband.  Her D-list status opens some doors for her by association with real stars like Ira Glass, but then she lacks the resources to be able to follow through.  By the second, “The Madwoman in the Volvo”, she has had an affair, left the husband, and is navigating menopause and caring for an aging father (lovably eccentric, or abusive and criminal, depending on your point of view).  Both books have a number of instances where the author is foolish, crazy, or selfish – it’s not clear if she herself realizes them all.

Should you buy these books?  Yes.  The author seems like a nice enough person (unless you’re her ex-husband), and it sounds like she could use the money.

Will you enjoy these books?  Have you heard of Sandra Tsing Loh and do you like her?  If so, then yes.  If not, then you will be bored or annoyed (although you might find some common ground if you find Barbara Ehrenreich to be unbearably sanctimonious).

Sandra Tsing Loh has written six books and will doubtless keep plugging away to finance her retirement and kids’ college.  She is currently encouraging women to move into science and technology, rather than get sidetracked into an arts career like she did.

Off to be the Wizard – A Review

October 19, 2014

What would you do if you found out that the world and everyone in it was just part of a computer program, and you had the key to manipulating it?

Our hero, Martin Banks, adds a few zeroes to his bank account, gets caught, and escapes using time travel to Medieval England to use his powers to pass himself off as a wizard. He is from the “active idiot” school of protagonists (e.g. Philip J Fry of Futurama), which lets the writer advance the plot by his stupid choices, allows the reader to feel at least one step ahead, and generally keeps things chugging along nicely.

On the one hand, this is a pretty flimsy book with a lot of problems. I’ll accept the protagonist not being Sartre, but if you discover that you and your loved ones are nothing more than some lines of code, then I think a little existential angst is called for. The rules of “magic” (i.e. altering the master file that controls the universe) go into too much detail in some parts, but still leave you puzzling about whether some other things are possible. Even a casual feminist (or anyone who actually likes women) would find the all-male society of wizards a little creepy and unappealing. The locals and setting are often more like modern small-town America than Medieval England. Etc. Etc.

On the other hand, it does go along quickly and easily, particularly as a commute audiobook. It’s not really surprising, but it does keep you interested as to what will happen next. The humour and characterization is broad, but competent. So overall we should judge it a success.

Should you buy this book? The author, Scott Meyer, writes the strip “Basic Instructions”, which is funnier but likely less profitable. So he could probably use the money.

Will you enjoy this book? Can you write a macro? Did you ever play D&D? Are you willing to chuckle about double entendres on “holding staffs”? If so, then you may well enjoy this book. If not, then you will be confused, bored, and/or irritated.

Off to be the Wizard is the first of a Magic 2.0 series (three books so far). Though not yet a film, it could be made into one without too much effort.

Thanks to John Mount for the Philip J Fry example.

Scotland’s choice

September 17, 2014

Scotland is voting on independence, and it’s neck and neck.

It’s unarguable that the United Kingdom has done many significant things, for good and ill. Scottish nationalists like to claim Scotland as a victim of imperialism, but the reality is more complicated. Scots took a leading role in the British Empire, and were as willing to enslave and exploit (and sometimes assist) as the English. To pretend victimization now should draw scorn from those who had a real claim to it.

So why seek independence now, when Scotland has been moving towards greater autonomy? It’s part of the crisis of confidence in the British state. Britons have learned that their society had been rotten to the core for a long while, with rings of sexual abuse and corruption at its highest levels. The windfall of North Sea oil was squandered, and the people’s party led the country into a worse than pointless war with Iraq. The once-proud Liberal party sold all its principles for a Deputy Prime Ministership and a failed attempt at electoral reform. Scotland was caught between uncaring Tories and a Labour party filled with Blairite careerists and time-serving numpties.

Could Scotland be any worse off? Perhaps, if it goes for independence. An independence where the SNP proposes to keep on using the pound and threatens default if it doesn’t get its way. Why do they want to keep the pound? Well, it’s stable, it’s a known quantity, and it makes sense, given the border and close trade relationships between England and Scotland. JUST LIKE THE ENTIRE IDEA OF THE U.K.!

The nationalists would retort that even if there were problems, they could be resolved eventually. And they are right – what is even thirty years of downturn compared to the lifetime of a nation? But that cuts both ways. Eventually Cameron will be as little-remembered as the 1st Viscount Sidmouth, and Britain will continue on, one way or another. Against all the wrongs of the U.K., set the defeat of fascism, the successful union of nations, the benefits of liberty without the harshness of the U.S., the invention of television, and Dr. Who. In the final analysis, the Scots are much more similar than different to the rest of the U.K. And we are all better together.

Flash Boys – A Review

June 3, 2014

Is the stock market rigged? And what does “rigged” mean, anyway?

Some people say that the market is controlled by a few shadowy individuals who manipulate news and world events so they can buy low and sell high. Some do actually rig the market by trading on inside information or illegally manipulating company financials – very occasionally getting caught. And there are a few penny stocks that are largely traded as part of pump and dump scams.

Michael Lewis’s “Flash Boys” says that the market is rigged, in that high frequency traders (HFT) learn what you want to buy or sell a few milliseconds before the rest of the market. Armed with this information, they can cut in front of everyone else, change the price, and play you (or your mutual fund) for a sucker. It’s like insider trading, but completely legal and riskless.

Flash Boys tells the story of HFT, from the point of view of its victims.

The hero of the book is Brad Katsuyama, a nice guy at the nice Royal Bank of Canada who makes a nice living (a couple of million a year) trading stock for large clients. Let’s say Fidelity wants to buy 10,000 shares of AT&T. If they try to buy it all at once, then the market will react, and they’ll have to pay a premium. Brad’s job is to spread the trades out so Fidelity pays a more reasonable price. It’s not clear why this couldn’t be done by a computer program, saving a couple of million dollars a year, but that’s another book.

Brad runs into problems, though. To do his job, he needs to know what the market price is. But whenever he tries to trade a stock, the price changes before he can do it – the market price doesn’t exist. Brad investigates, and ends up going down the rabbit hole of HFT, eventually putting together a team that builds an exchange that can’t be front-run by the HFTers and will give fair prices for all. Hurrah!

That’s the main story, at least. There are a couple of other bits on someone building a straight-line data route from the Midwest to the East Coast, and a computer programmer who’s sent to jail by Goldman Sachs for taking code when he leaves. Both work well.

How important is HFT? The heroes think it’s a major threat to capitalism and a massive swindle on the ordinary American investor. The book isn’t quite clear on how big an effect it has, but people who work in finance tell me it’s more like the man who takes a penny from everyone’s bank account – he can get rich, but you as an individual don’t notice much. In fact, maybe it’s beneficial in that it provides liquidity. And besides, competition among HFTers should drive arbitrage profits down to near zero. And you can minimize loss to HFT by not trading a lot, which is probably a good idea anyway.

So is there nothing to worry about? Not quite. The strongest point against HFT is the flash crash, when many shares traded at ridiculously high or low prices for fractions of a second. If everything is for the best in this best of all possible markets, then why did the flash crash happen?

Looked at a different way, is it a good thing that so much effort is being devoted to shaving an extra millisecond off the time for orders to reach market? It seems hard to imagine that we couldn’t put our best and brightest to use in some more socially productive fashion. But under our current system, what would that be? These days, if not finance, all the mathematicians are busy figuring out which ads to show you on the Internet, and how much companies should pay for them. On the other hand, in previous years, they were figuring out how to find enemy submarines, or calculate how many tractors Donetsk should produce, so perhaps we are better off now. And at least creating the straight-line routes needed led to some construction jobs in the depth of the recession.

How is the book as a story? Good, but not Lewis’s best. One of the problems is that the main character does not have much depth. Brad is portrayed as a Dudley Do-Right – a minority who doesn’t think of himself as a minority, who works hard and sails into a job at the RBC, and whose main concern in life is making sure that investors can trade at a fair price. His steadfastness to his principles is admirable, but the lack of character development does not make for the best story. Even Jesus got angry, tempted, and despaired. Brad works with an Irish tech guy, Ronan, who has the same single-minded devotion to the cause, but with more swearing.

Overall, the book moves along nicely, though, and does a reasonable job of making the dry subject matter interesting.

Should you buy this book? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t lie, but it does give the anti-HFT viewpoint an extremely uncritical platform. Maybe we should be encouraging Lewis to try harder, but you can buy it with a clear conscience.

Will you enjoy this book? Are you interested in how HFT works, and how a stock exchange might try to stop it? If so, then you will find this book interesting. If those details seem kind of technical, then this is not the book for you.

Flash Boys ends happily for all concerned. On the page, Katsuyama’s fair IEX exchange is a success. In the world, Lewis’s book is a best-seller and being cited approvingly in Congress. And if you’re in the market, then perhaps you’ve noticed a few pennies more in your account.

Notes on Crimea

April 4, 2014

The most important thing about Crimea is that Crimea is not that important.  What does it have?  Some beaches that are nice enough if you’ve never seen Hawaii.  A few natural resources.  The Russian Black Sea fleet, their key to projecting power in the Mediterranean, if you forget about Istanbul being in the way.

Putin’s seizing of Crimea is a crime, of course, and one that should be protested, but it’s a curious one – like a mugger who holds you at gunpoint, but is only interested in taking a lucky penny.  In fact, Ukraine is better off without Crimea – it’s poor and full of ethnic minorities suspicious of their central government.  Plus Ukraine no longer has to pay maintenance on the Ukrainian fleet which turned out to be even more useless than the Russian Black Sea fleet.  Crimea was only in Ukraine in the first place because Khrushchev put it there.  Why?  Nobody knows, but then nobody knows why Khrushchev did anything he did.

But isn’t Crimea like the Sudetenland – Russia’s first step to global domination that will end up with the reconquest of Alaska and the annexation of San Francisco’s Russian Hill?  Not really.  First, the Sudetenland was actually useful.  Second, Germany was an economic powerhouse.  And most importantly, the Russians have somehow saddled themselves with nationalism – an ideology even less appealing to the rest of the world than fascism.  The Nazis said most of the rest of the world was fit only to serve Germany, but still managed to get allies in France, Italy, Eastern Europe – even Japan.  Who are Russia’s friends?  Belarus, Serbia, and half of Syria.

This is not to say that Putin has no ambitions.  If you’re a non-NATO country bordering Russia, you should probably Finlandize now and save yourself the trouble.   But on the list of things the West should be worried about, this is pretty low.

What should the administration do?  Formal protests, some sanctions, maybe toss Ukraine some money, have a couple of exercises defending the Baltic states against unspecified aggressors – basically nothing.  Luckily, gridlock and a sputtering economy means that the United States now has doing nothing down to a fine art.

Double Down – A Review

March 3, 2014

“Double Down” is a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S. 2012 election and primaries.

We already know the broad outlines – Romney was the best of a bad bunch of Republican candidates, but limped from gaffe to gaffe.  Obama had a lackluster performance in the first debate, but landed a knockout punch on Benghazi in the second, and cruised to a big victory.  So the book reads like a director’s commentary on a familiar movie.

What do we learn?  Obama’s heart was not in the debates initially, and his mocks were consistently bad.  Partly this was because of his general ambivalence to the whole process, and partly because he didn’t feel his second term agenda had anything big worth running on.  But with a lot of drilling and prep from his team, he was able to get the job done in the end.

During the campaign, Biden came out for gay marriage before Obama.  It turns out that this was a simple blunder rather than a move in five-dimensional chess – the administration had planned for the President to make a big announcement at a particular time, but neglected to let Joe in on the plan.  Biden comes off reasonably well – not the most polished, but ferociously loyal to the President, realizing that their fortunes are inextricably linked.

Also interesting in the light of recent events – Romney had considered Christie as a VP, but rejected him as there were too many unanswered questions in his background.  Romney felt mistreated by the media, and this book indirectly claims he had a bit of a case, whether it be the NYT writing the misleading “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” headline for his op-ed, or Candy Crowley breaking debate rules to fact-check him over Benghazi.  On the other hand, he should have known that going in, and been more cautious in wording his article, or finding out just what Obama said.

What does the book miss?  It only touches briefly on Obama’s hugely successful analytics team, and Romney’s analytical fiasco.  Nate Silver is not mentioned, though he is arguably the most important non–partisan figure of 2012.

Indeed, the central puzzle of the election is why Mr. Fix-It Romney was unable to fix his own campaign.  Partly it’s that hostility to mainstream media blinded him to useful truths (e.g. that he was losing, or that independents didn’t think of Benghazi as a big strike against the administration), partly that he had to run against his moderate record (e.g. Romneycare), and partly that his success in business didn’t signify as much as you might think.  Having worked for would-be Romneys, there is often less to them than meets the eye.

Should you buy this book?  The main argument against is that we should not be encouraging this type of personality-driven narrative – fundamental demographic forces, and data-driven fundraising and microtargeting were much more important to the election than anything Clint Eastwood or Valerie Jarrett did.  I’m sympathetic to this view, but feel it misses some important points.  First, Obama’s initially poor debate performance had a noticeable impact on the polls.  Without at least a reversion to average, Romney would have won.  More fundamentally, it’s not enough to just have the ingredients for victory – “dust does not sweep itself”, as Mao said.

Will you enjoy this book?  If you’re a Democrat, and follow political trivia enough that you could recognize Axelrod or Messina, then you will love it.  If you’re a Republican, then you will hate it.  Everyone else will bored.

“Double Down” is the sequel to the successful “Game Change” and includes many of the same characters.  The authors are probably tossing around names for their 2016 book right now.

Memoirs by Rachel Dratch, Julie Klausner – review

February 15, 2014

Rachel Dratch’s “Girl Walks into a Bar . . .: Comedy Calamities, Dating Disasters, and a Midlife Miracle” and Julie Klausner’s “I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters, and Other Guys I’ve Dated” are similar – memoirs by modestly successful Jewish comediennes.  Rachel is a bit more successful and famous, having broken into the vernacular as SNL’s “Debbie Downer”.  The big difference is that Rachel is in her forties, Julie her thirties.

Julie’s book mostly recounts her misadventures in dating, of which there are many.  Typically she falls for a man who treats her badly, but who is great in bed.  There is the occasional dalliance with someone she connects with (or at least likes the same music as), but who won’t sleep with her.  Dollar-book Freud would say that the important thing for her is to avoid the combination of physical and emotional intimacy at all costs.  At the very least, something strange is going on if you’re a New Yorker looking for dates in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as she once does.  But she generally resists such self-examination, and for most of the book you wonder “Will Julie really sleep with this clearly unsuitable person?  Even if she doesn’t really like him?  Or find him physically attractive?”  Yes she will.

Making it as a writer is clearly important to Julie, but we don’t get to hear much about this.  A misjudgement – many of us have dated crazy people, but few of us know what it’s like to write for a TV show.

Rachel’s book is similar, but those extra ten years or so give it a bit more depth.  She is more self-reflective than Julie – at one point deliberately changing her dating pattern to avoid guys in show business.  This turns out to be a good move, and she meets a nice guy and accidentally gets pregnant when she thought she had no chance.  She talks more about her career in general – after SNL, she was on 30 Rock in guest roles for the first season, but then the work dried up, leaving her only with offers to play “comic” old and obese lesbians.  And there are some inside insights – what is interviewing with Lorne Michaels like?  What’s working for SNL like?  Her behind-the-scenes skewering of the allegedly dreadful film “Her Minor Thing” in which she had a “wacky lesbian” role almost makes you want to watch it.

Rachel and Julie come from similar backgrounds, but have different public personas.  Julie is the cool kid who cuts class, makes fun of lots of things, and expects you will too.  Most likely she will casually trash one of your favorite bands before the end of the book.  Rachel is the A student who works hard, tries to do the right thing, and really wants you to like her.  You would probably go to more exciting parties with Julie, but be more comfortable hanging out with Rachel.

Should you buy these books?  Rachel seems like a genuinely nice person who would put the money to good use.  Julie can be a bit mean at times, but some of that is an act.

Will you enjoy these books?  If you like 30 Rock, then you will like Rachel’s book.  Not that it mentions 30 Rock that much after the first chapter, but the sensibility is pretty similar – comedy, dating, and showbiz, with Rachel being close to Liz Lemon, but without Tina Fey’s leading-lady looks.  Rachel was originally considered for the Jenna Maroney role on 30 Rock, and if that fact doesn’t interest you, then you probably won’t like the book.

What about Julie?  Her book falls more squarely into the vicarious experience genre – here’s what it’s like to go to law school / enlist in West Point / date a bunch of crazies.  Useful if you’re curious but don’t have the LSAT scores, upper-body strength, or lack of self-respect required.  If you haven’t dated enough dysfunctional people, and are interested in learning what that would be like, then this is the book for you.

One note: Julie also writes the “How was your week” podcast, which largely consists of superficial industry snark delivered at a slow pace.  Very different feel to the book, and not recommended.

Rachel Dratch and Julie Klausner’s books are available at the usual bookstores, or as audiobooks read by the authors.  They are generally light listens suitable for the commute, and they do good jobs reading them.


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