The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

An excellent book set in an interesting near future. It’s the 22nd century, but the collapse of oil and ravages of engineered plagues have knocked technology way back. Carbon emissions are also a big problem, with the sea nearly drowning many cities– and having drowned several others. The setting is great; an intriguing mix of various threads of today extrapolated forward.

The characters fit the setting and are well done. Tan Hock is very sympathetic, despite also scheming and cheating– often tough to make work for me as a reader. Anderson is a good gaijin– focused on home and what success means there, tangled in the local situation but also somewhat above it. Kanya and Jaidee provide interesting takes on the Environmental Ministry, anchoring the carbon emissions and making their effect concrete. Emiko, the windup girl of the title, is wonderful– but she goes through terrible things. I know that when I recommended the book to my wife, it was with the caution that her character is horribly abused on screen– degradation is a core part of her experience.

Their interactions are sometimes surprising, sometimes seem a little contrived as they cross paths, but they show and experience a very tumultuous time in the City’s history, from very complimentary points of view. Unlike many large cast books, I never wanted to skip past a character’s experiences to get to the next.

Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers

A fun, fast read– once I started, it sucked me in. It is an alternate world, alternate tech– lots of gears and strange technology, no overt magic, Victorian manners and interesting interactions between the various strata of society.

I liked the gritty, strange tech of the world. It made for a place that felt real as a city– as more than the touristy veneer that some fantastic cities feel like. Similarly, the technology was strange– partially understood by the characters, but no long asides explaining where it came from, which was great. The airships were cool, as were the algorithm’s devices… and source.

The book does a really good job of pushing real characters. Everyone involved has an angle, people draw back just when you need them, and the secrets are all social– they are people secrets as much as technology or control secrets. The details of Veridon’s politics and their influence on Jacob is constant– but it develops at a reasonable pace, and the twists make sense in the newly expanded context that’s revealed when the world turns upside down (again).

Plague Year by Jeff Carlson

Plague Year has a star– the nanotech that destroyed civilization and has stranded everyone up on mountain peaks. The story starts more than a year later and is told from two points of view. Cam is a ski instructor who has compromised his morals to survive despite the lack of sustenance up above 10,000 feet, and Ruth is a scientist on the International Space Station. Both stories are well told, with compromised but still sympathetic characters. Sawyer’s subplot is interesting and knits the two experiences and lives together with interesting contrasts.

The ending is abrupt– the action stutters to an break point and we get a sentence to end this book set up for the next book, Plague War. I will probably read the sequel, but it isn’t a strong compulsion. I enjoyed it, but I suspect it isn’t one I’ll reread much.

Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies by Richard McKenzie

An interesting book, but the forward is terrible and almost made me put it down. (Grand claims about Evolutionary Psychology in an Economics books was a huge red flag. Fortunately, by the time I got to the final chapter, he turned out to be claiming less– I guess an edgy start was his marketing plan.)

He does a good job of introducing puzzling prices we encounter in our daily lives and offering interesting explanations (or a good hypothesis) for each. The various demand curve discussions a little murky in text, but often backed up with a sketch appropriate to the situation, so it would up being clear in the end. Even better were the additional facts that informed many of the specific issues.

The title issue was easy to see as soon as he introduced the fact that movie producers, rather than charging a flat fee for a movie reel instead charge a high percentage of the ticket revenues (often 70-95%). If 95% of ticket sales are going to the movie producer, then yeah, the theater has to pay for everything from something– and really, drinks and popcorn is what’s left. If they lose 70%+ of their ticket price, their incentive to hike admission rates should be small (since they get less than $1 per $3 increased)– but with most theaters showing $10+ movies already, it’s hard to imagine prices continuing up. Or at least it’s hard to imagine people still buying the theater’s popcorn when the cost of admission has eaten their whole entertainment budget.

The Myth of the Rational Market by Justin Fox

An interesting look at the evolution of several approaches to the market, economics equations, and schools of thought designed to address economics mysteries. The careful tracing of specific professors and their students makes for quite a complex geneology of ideas– but it’s fascinating to see the players of today, the schools and clumps of association that led to development of theories.

The easy takeaways are that markets may not be rational– but in the ways that are bad for an individual investor, you might as well assume they are. People don’t leave money on the table if they can help it– so if you spy an opportunity, it’s always best to try to figure out what you’re overlooking. The increasing influence of behavioral economics seems “fringy” to the mainstream– really, they mostly seem to be providing formulas and quantification that match the pre-1940s economist’s caveats, just expressed in math instead of disclaimers.

I like the idea of behavioral economics research– testing where the limits of human rationality and patience are and figuring out which systematic biases we have. It seems like a fruitful line of investigation, and a good corrective to the all seeing market… at least for now.

Savory Breakfasts

I remember reading this a while back, but after discussing this with Jennifer this morning, I may move to incorporate a few of these into our routine.

From Your Morning Pizza

Uncovering this little-known fact has made the savory, grain-based breakfast a matter of routine for me. I do polenta with butter and Parmesan; steel-cut oats with peanut butter (sometimes with hot sauce); and, a recent favorite, brown rice with dried mushrooms and dried tomatoes.

In addition to the polenta “pizza,” and the wheat berry-soy-scallions bowl, which I eat in one variation or another at least once a week, you might consider this coconut oat pilaf, a spicy, aromatic dish that will change the way you think about oatmeal. As for the wild rice and quinoa dish, a kind of stuffing for breakfast, this — like the traditional post-Thanksgiving meal — is a perfect place for leftovers. As is breakfast in general.

We’ll probably start by trying the polenta as an experiment, and see where it goes. Who doesn’t want a few more options at breakfast?

The Cipher by Diana P. Francis

The book is subtitled “A Novel of Crosspointe”. This book is the first of three published so far, according to the author’s website.

I liked the novel, though the heroine bets beat up again and again, almost beyond endurance. If you think Harry Dresden’s always getting hurt, Lucy’s in such deep hot water and so near death and disaster that it’s hard to keep reading. Despite starting with action, it took time for my interest to develop. And Lucy’s problems go on and on, snowballing and making for a pain filled life for the vast majority of the book.

A few scenes stick a bit– like the time near the end when Lucy says she won’t take it any longer, but a half-hour slips by in the next sentence. But overall it’s an interesting book and a well done world. I’m interested in the sequels, particularly with new main characters. Lucy (and, to a lesser extent, Martin) have completed their arc.