Site Update: New York Travelog

I went to New York for a couple of weeks. I didn't emerge with any exciting anecdotes. But you can read the travelog anyhow. The main thing I got out of the trip: the best New York pizza is not so great, but there are rumors of greatness in New Haven.

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Link: BillMonk, Billing for the People

I was just checking out BillMonk, a web site that allows people to keep track of the money they owe each other. You and five friends go out for lunch and you need to deal with the bill? Let one guy pay and enter the amount in the BillMonk. Next time, someone else can get lunch, and tell the BillMonk. The BillMonk will keep track of who paid what. So if you paid when people went to the expensive place, and Pat paid when people went to the cheap place, Pat still owes you a bit. Use it to keep track of which roommate owes rent, to handle one-on-one transactions, whatever.

The bad news is that BillMonk is a service of the company "Code Monks", and one of the founders of "Code Monks" is Chuck Groom, and I still owe that guy three bucks for coffee back from when we worked together at Blue Mug.

So I guess I'll sign up for the service. But in this BillMonk transaction, I think Chuck is the monk, but I am the monkee.

(via DLoft)

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Book Report: Fortune's Formula

William Poundstone wrote Prisoner's Dilemma, one of my favorite books ever. That book convinced me to look more closely at the prisoner's dilemma, and that in turn changed the way that I think about life.

Fortune's Formula, his latest book, touches on many interesting topics. It's about the Kelly formula. What's the Kelly formula? Suppose you know of a gambling game that pays 100:1. But you think that the game designer made a mistake: you have a 1/50 chance of winning this game. You can play this game once a day. How much of your money should you throw at it? Well, the game is in your favor, so you want to throw a lot of money at it. But you don't want to put in all of your money at once: you would have a 49/50 chance of going bust. You could play $1 per day, and know that you'd make some money in the long run with little risk--but surely if you risked more, you could gain more. The Kelly formula looks at a game's risk and payoff; it tells you what percentage of your stake to gamble on that game.

That doesn't sound so interesting on its own. BUT Poundstone tied this formula into the history of information theory and the economics of markets. He writes about Claude Shannon and his attempts to win at Roulette by tracking ball movements and using an early computer. He writes about Ed Thorp, the guy who wrote Beat the Dealer and later moved away from blackjack and over to hedge funds. He writes about organized crime trying to go legit. He writes about Milken and the investment scandals of the 80s... uhm, maybe he includes too much material about that. There's an academic economics paper (mostly) in words of one syllable.

Ah, this book is so full of great stuff, I just have to share some personal favorites.

Possibly [mobster] Zwillman's most peculiar investment was another wire service [besides the one he used to transmit advance notice of horse race results]. It was a company that ran wires to wealthy subscribers' homes. The wirse carried opera and other soothing music. The firm prospered only when it offered its service for stores, offices, and elevators. In 1954 the Chicago Crime Commission concluded that the Muzak Corporation was controlled by the notorious Longy Zwillman. Zwillman said he was merely a stockholder.

I guess I shouldn't be so mad at stores that keep playing Christmas music all the time; if they stop, I guess the manager gets shot in the kneecaps.

Shannon's "Ultimate Machine" was the size and shape of a cigar box. On the front panel was a toggle switch. The unsuspecting visitor was invited to flip the switch on. When that happened, the top slowly opened. A robot hand emerged, reached down, and flipped the switch off. The hand retreated, the lid snapped shut.

Also on the subject of mobsters and music, this book talks about how mob money took over Warner Brothers.

There is a neat comparison between Maxwell's Demon, which converts information into energy; and the attempts of investors to turn information into money.

All the same, I hope that this book doesn't change my life as much as The Prisoner's Dilemma. People think I'm dull enough as a computer programmer; if I start playing poker professionally, I think they'll give up on me.

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Book Report: the Zero Game

I just got back from a business trip to New York. I stayed in a corporate apartment. When I entered the apartment and looked around the living room, I saw that previous tenants had left some books to read, yay! But then I looked at the books--they looked like books that one buys in an airport bookstore out of desperation. One shouldn't judge a book by its cover. But I could have judged The Zero Game by its cover just fine.

It's a tale of spine-tingling intrigue and murder as our hero and heroine maneuver the halls of the Capitol in the chase of their lives and zzzzzz...

There were some nice glimpses of the way the US Government budget gets made, but not enough to make it worth slogging through a thriller.

On the positive side, this book kept me busy for a couple of days, until I had a chance to go to The Strand and pick up some better books for the apartment.

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Book Report: People's History of the United States

Reading Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States is hard work.

He writes about some parts of USA history which I didn't know about. Some of these pieces of history were pretty disturbing.

He also describes some Large Movements which, when you look more closely at the description, sound like small movements. If a government figures out a way to give free milkshakes and pony rides to everyone, you can bet that some people including a couple of semi-famous artists will protest. If a government oppresses its people, you can bet that more people will protest. Zinn writes about both sizes of protests, and you need to pay close attention to figure out when he describes a popular movement vs. a few looney-tunes.

Anyhow, it's an interesting book, but be sure to keep your wits about you when you read it. You always do that when reading non-fiction, of course. I'm just saying you want to gird your loins for a lot of critical thinking.

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Book Review: Copies in Seconds

It's a history of the invention of Xerography. Eh, it was okay.

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Book Report: Beyond the Hundredth Meridian

On the one side: snake-oil salesmen selling land, politicians seeking more consituents, consultants boosting their chances at government grants with Pollyannish lies of a land of plenty in need of settlement.

On the other side: responsible surveyors saying "We shouldn't move so many people into this area; it's a desert."

It's a true tale of the old West by Wallace Stegner, talking about the life of John Wesley Powell, an explorer, surveyor, and breaker of bad news ("It's a desert.").

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