Reading 1950-1990

On finding a discarded copy of "A Guide to Algol Programming"

Reading Diary

June, 2003 ... November, 2002 ... September, 2002 ... May, 2002

May, 2005:

  author={William Duham},
  title={Euler: The Master of Us All},
  publisher={The Mathematical Association of America},
Leonhard Euler (1706 -- 1790) was one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists ever. He left his mark on all the parts of mathematics that existed in his time. He was a prodigy and prodigal in production throughout his long life. He died working.

Euler became blind in 1771. From then on his productivity seemed to increase. In 1775, for example, he averaged a paper per week. His employer, the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, was still publishing the backlog of his papers 48 years after his death. His collected works, a publishing project started in 1911, stood at 73 volumes at the time of Dunham's writing.

Scientific output doubled every few decades before the advent of computer text processing; since then, the doubling period has decreased. Most science, by volume, is only a few decades old. The science that was produced before the 20th century is by volume negligible. Yet it shaped the whole enterprise. A big part of this is Euler's contribution. So we learn much from Euler, but only indirectly.

Take for example the fact that the sum of the reciprocals of the squares of the positive natural numbers is six over the square of the area of the unit circle. Because our schoolmasters disapprove of it, nobody nowadays learns to find this in the beautiful way Euler did. I encountered it as an exercise in contour integration in complex variable theory. I have nothing against complex variable theory and contour integration. I think the exercise is a good idea. But I'm delighted by Dunham showing me how Euler did it, in spite of the modern disapproval of the method. In fact, I think it is worth taking Euler's method seriously and to view it in terms of operations on formal power series and other formal objects. In this way it would become as rigorous as anything else we do, and a beautiful alternative to current dogma.

I think the Great Books people had a point, namely that often you have a choice: learn from the masters, or from textbooks. The textbooks are not written by masters, but by students of students of students of masters.

The Great Books people picked the easy targets, such as Descartes. Their advice is not so easy to follow with Euler. The Greatest Hits are hard to find in the 73 volumes of his Opera Omnia, which themselves will be hard to find. Interlibrary Loan is not an option. Try writing to a professor in mathematics at one of the few universities that have the Opera Omnia with the request to house and feed you so you can study from the master himself. She might warm to the unusual idea and something beautiful might develop.

I only go to the city's public library for mundane and frivolous stuff disdained by the university's library. You won't want to know what brought me there, when, discarded on a table, I spotted "Euler, Master of Us All". It contains Dunham's selection of the Greatest Hits, beautifully rendered in Latex and collected in a slim volume. Each chapter starts with an introduction of the pre-Euler state of the art and concludes with an epilogue on what happened since. I found Dunham's book lying on top of a similarly slim volume:

  author={W.K. B\"uhler},
  title={Gauss: a Biographical Study},
Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777 - 1855) is regarded as an even greater mathematician than Euler. The book is very different: it does not try to give you any of the mathematics itself. But there is enough expert discussion on it to appreciate contributions of Gauss. A big surprise to me was that Gauss played such an important role as a practical scientist in astronomy, geodesy, and terrestrial magnetism. He organized observatories and laboratories. He planned and coordinated experiments. Some of his most important mathematical contributions arose in connection with the concomitant calculations.

The strength of the book is description of the social and political scene during the life of Gauss. It is as if the author, a German living in the U.S., enjoys the opportunity tell the rest of the world something about the history of his fatherland, using the high fame of his subject as bait.

January, 2005

  author={Abraham Maslow},
  title={The Farther Reaches of Human Nature },
  publisher={Penguin Books},
Probably not the best introduction to Maslow. But very interesting. Will get to "The Psychology of Being" some other time.

Maslow was a psychologist. That can mean a lot of things. Let's say, he was at an end of psychology that is opposite to behaviourism. Yet, like the behaviourists, he takes a biologist's point of view. Unlike the behaviourists, he is not interested in the part of humans that is like rats. Instead, he wonders what makes a human different from a rat. Very dangerous: yes, humans seem to be different, but is that difference a fit subject for scientific investigation?

One way in which rats and humans are different is in what constitutes normality. In rats, the average is also normal. There is the occasional runt, clearly recognizable as subnormal. The average rat is normal, because it has deployed its genetically endowed potential. The runt is a runt because this potential is not fully deployed.

Maslow tries to understand the enormous difference between the outrageously successful humans (in commerce, industry, science, art) and the average. Maslow does not necessarily consider CEOs of big companies to be in this class. They are more likely to have attained their position as a result of political savvy combined with a consuming desire for wealth and power. Some CEOs are in the class that Maslow considers successes as humans. These tend to be mavericks, who founded their own companies or even whole industries.

Maslow thinks the outrageously successful people normal from a biological point of view, for the simple reason that they fully deployed their genetic endowment. The rest of us, 99%, are the human equivalent of the runt in the rat: somehow this deployment got stuck. Is this why Henry David Thoreau said something about most people leading lives of quiet desperation?

Now it's not so strange to read about Oliver Sacks, who looks like of those rare outrageously successful people, spending an hour with his psychoanalyst twice a week, where ever in the world he is.

June, 2004: "The Book That Nobody Read" by Owen Gingerich.
The book in question is "De Revolutionibus Orbis" by Nicolaus Copernicus. It contains the first exposition of the Copernican system according to which the earth is one of the planets and all planets have circular orbits with the sun as centre. This was the doctrine that was declared heretical by the church of Rome soon after the death of Copernicus and which gave rise to the famous trial of Galileo.

Copernicus plays an important role in the widely read "The Sleepwalkers" by Koestler. This book seems to contain the remark that "De Revolutionibus" was one of those books that are both famous and hardly read by anybody. Owen Gingerich is an astronomer and historian of science who came across a heavily annotated copy of the first edition of "De Revolutionibus", disproving Koestler wrong right off the bat. He started looking at other copies and ended up compiling, over a period of decades, a census of all known copies of the first and second edition (still published in the 16th century).

In the course of this quest he identified early owners of each of the copies and studying their annotations. Sometimes these annotations are small treatises in their own right. These annotations are sometimes copied into other copies. Who did what is often a fascinating detective story. The early owners represent a roll-call of the scientific network of the sixteenth century.

Gingerich's book is a fascinating mixture of bibliography, astronomy, history of astronomy, and forensics. A particular poignant part is what happened to the Leningrad observatory, an important source on Copernicus. Gingerich tells of its founding, how its collection was heroically rescued when the observatory was bombarded by the invading German forces during World War II, beautifully restored under the Soviet regime, and recently destroyed by some Russian mafia. (It seems they had been trying to get permission to turn the observatory into a resort. When the permission was not forthcoming or refused they set it on fire.)

Other recent tidbits include Gingerich testifying in court cases concerning theft of a first edition. Often Gingerich does not have to leave his office. On several occasions he was phoned by a book dealer who got offered a suspect copy. Gingerich describes himself as identifying it without getting off the phone, consulting the files for his census, and asking questions like: is there a wormhole in the lower margin extending from page 76 to page 89? By now the brotherhood will understand that "De Revolutionibus" is a hot piece of goods.

May 16, 2004

  author={Henry Hazlitt},
  title={Economics in One Lesson},
  publisher={Three Rivers Press},
  annote={Earlier editions: 1946, 1962}

One lesson, yet a whole book

The mystery is solved by the table of contents. Part I contains the Lesson, in eight pages. Part II contains 22 chapters, each with an application of the Lesson. Part III is the Lesson after 30 years, in another eight pages.

The Lesson is that the economy is a sufficient complex system that well-intentioned measures have, apart from their intended effects on target beneficiaries, effects on the economy as a whole that are not easily traceable to their cause and are invariably detrimental. The Lesson is worth knowing, not understood by the general public, and always glossed over by the politicians advocating the measure.

The book is beautifully written. It would be a pure joy to read, were it not that Hazlitt does not understand the Lesson very well. Hazlitt makes it appear as if economists understand the economy so well that they do understand the effects of the measures discussed. In each case, Hazlitt makes it appear that the true effects have been fully determined by the science of economics and that it is only the dishonesty of the politicians and the gullibility of the public that stands in the way of a full understanding of the true effects of a measure.

However, understanding has to start somewhere, and this should be included among several alternative introductions to economics.

April 28, 2004

  author={David Denby},
  title={American Sucker},
  publisher={Little, Brown},
David Denby is a film critic and staff writer for the New Yorker. He is a graduate from a program at Columbia University that was inspired by the Great Books crusade of the 1930s. Denby's first book is about this and his debt to such an unusual university education. The book I am reporting on, whose awful title (probably stuck on by the publisher) I will abbreviate to A.S., recounts roughly the years 1999 - 2001.

Denby's marriage broke up. In his attempt to maintain multiple abodes for his family he found he needed money, money, money. In this state he became susceptible to the infectious stock market mania of the time.

The book has excellent descriptions of his personal experiences. In an unusual juxtaposition, he also gives fascinating reportage on various actors in this episode. We read about first-hand encounters with Henry Blodget and Sam Waksal. Especially the latter is covered in a unique way. As a moral philosopher and victim, Denby writes authoritatively on Greed and Envy in the context of their status of cardinal sins (for your edification, a reasonably serious web document gives the full list as Vanity, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Sloth; let's pray they got it right).

February 28, 2002

  author={Jason Epstein},
  title={Book Business},

Book Business Not As Usual

Jason Epstein started in publishing fresh out of college at a time when the concept of Quality Paperback was still revolutionary. In this book he states it as obvious that new technology will force the big publishing firms to drastically change or disappear.

Epstein welcomes the anticipated change. He shows how publishing is ideally suited to small firms. Indeed, the current fashion in business to outsource everything except the core competence was for a long time traditional in publishing. When Ford glorified the concept of doing everything inside his corporation except the digging up of the raw materials, it was traditional for publishers to operate out of a small office, outsourcing printing, binding, design, distribution and concentrating of acquisition, financing, and marketing.

In the 1980s and 1990s when business in general was going back to core competences, publishing was going in the opposite direction, when book publishers got bought by media conglomerates, apparently lured by anticipated "synergies". Epstein fits in the world of small publishers, and suffered from the change that dominated his career.

One interesting aspect of the book is Epstein's optimism about the Internet and the prospect of portable devices for downloading and displaying books. He sees it likely that this shifts the balance of power back to small publishers. Even more intriguingly, he notes how the Internet may even completely disintermediate the publisher by allowing authors and readers to find one another directly.

An additional attraction for people like myself who are not in the book business, but are book junkies, is the glimpses into what it's like to be an editor. Epstein graduated from Columbia College where the idea of education was to read the One Hundred Great Books, started with Homer and ending in the 19th century. Anything later was still considered too dicey; not clear enough what was Great. Epstein took to it like a duck to water. Without this background, he would not have started Doubleday Anchor books, and even knowing about the existence of the One Hundred Great Books would still have been confined to a small elite.

Why three rather than five stars? Epstein is articulate, but not a writer. That's not his career. Still the book is pleasant to read, and useful for the insights outlined above. Articulate non-writers with valuable insights should be encouraged.

May 9, 2002

  author={David Ogilvy},
  title={Blood, Brains, and Beer:
         The Autobiography of David Ogilvy},

The Tatterdemalion Pruning the Roses

Once upon a time you could visit Touffou castle in France and be shown around by a pretty guide. Most visitors came because they hoped to meet the owner, the retired advertising tycoon David Ogilvy. They didn't because they failed to recognize the tatterdemalion pruning the roses.

This is from Ogilvy's autobiography "Blood, Brains, and Beer", published 1978 and now out of print. (There seem to be plenty copies second-hand; see for example At 176 small pages it is a quick read. It is also a pleasant one. In his own way, Ogilvy is a virtuoso writer, which is one of the qualities that propelled him into his spectacular career in advertising. The sentences are short. I remember two that consist of a single word. What slowed down my reading occasionally was the need to look up a word (for example, "tatterdemalion" which seems to mean "a ragged fellow, a ragamuffin").

Ogilvy adheres to Voltaire's dictum: "L'art d'ennuyer, c'est tout dire." In such a small book, much is left unsaid. There is an occasional reference to "my wife" without so much as a hint who this person might be or how she came into his life. Only from his obituary I learned that there were three. Everything about what made him famous, the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, is in the chapter "Fame and Fortune", which takes up 28 pages.

Fame and fortune it was. This was as spectacular a start-up as we have witnessed in later decades. Its rapid growth was all the more remarkable, as it happened in an established industry: other start-ups were mainly successful because they were sucked into the vacuum of an expanding new industry. Ogilvy is very modest in the analysis of his success: "If you want to follow my example, here is the recipe: First make a reputation for being a creative genius. Second, surround yourself with partners who are better than you are. Third, leave them to get on with it."

What are the antecedents for this spectacular success? After Ogilvy had been expelled from Oxford University for academic reasons, he worked as a cook's apprentice in the Majestic Hotel in Paris, a gruelling job. As a result of this experience he got a job in Scotland as a salesman of cooking stoves. Apparently, his relatives then took mercy on him and he got a job at his brother's advertising agency in London. Restlessly, he emigrated to America, well-endowed with recommendations from his well-connected family. He worked for Dr George Gallup. In the second world war he worked in Washington, D.C. in the British Secret and Diplomatic Services. After the war, he unsuccessfully tried farming among the Amish in Pennsylvania. When he was rich and famous, he looked back on this period as the happiest in his life.

With this patchwork of failures and modest successes, Ogilvy started at age 38 ("no credentials, no clients, and only $ 6000 in the bank") his own advertising agency (one gets the impression that the "Mather" in "Ogilvy and Mather" has been entirely decorative) and made it into an instant success in the face of heavy competition. Can this mystery be explained?

Part of the explanation is a thread of excellence that runs through Ogilvy's life. As a boy he was told by his grandfather: "When you grow up and go out into the world, you will probably find your way to New York. I advise you to study the methods of J.P. Morgan and Company. There is no other institution quite like it." As a result of this study, Ogilvy discovered that Mr Morgan described his partners as "gentlemen with brains" and that Mr Morgan also said that his bank must always confine itself to "First Class business in a First Class way".

Being a failed student apprenticed as a cook has its advantages if it is at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, one of the best kitchens in the centre of the culinary universe. Being a salesman is not all bad if the product is the Aga cook stove, a remarkably innovative and excellent product. Gallup seems to have been a gentleman with brains as well, bringing scientific justification to business and policy decision via his innovative methods of polling public opinion. In the Secret Service, he was on the staff of Sir William Stephenson, "one of the most successful operators in the long history of the British Secret Service ... He was a man of extraordinary fertility. All was grist to his mill. It took eleven secretaries to keep up with him."

If the early years at Ogilvy and Mather were a miracle, they were a power-assisted miracle. A page from Ogilvy's diary: "Got up at five o'clock and did my homework -- three brief-cases. At 7:30 took breakfast to my wife. Drove to the office ... Got home at 8:20. Dined and went back to my homework." "During weekends I wrote more than a hundred and fifty memoranda, letters, and notes." It does help if a creative genius can work like this.

Ogilvy's account of his time in the British diplomatic service gives a hint that bureaucracies may not all be stupid. If you are lucky, you may land in an excellent bureaucracy. From Ogilvy's earlier book "Confessions of an Advertising Man" and from "The Unpublished David Ogilvy" one get glimpses in the workings of the advertising agency. These give me the impression that Ogilvy learned valuable things during his wartime sojourn in British bureaucracies.

I am attracted to Ogilvy in part by his charm, in another part by what his career and methods may suggest for another industry: that of software development. Lest you dismiss any parallel between advertising and software development, consider this. Ogilvy was successful by combining superior creativity with a scientific approach to advertising (which he had learned with Gallup). That's exactly what's needed in software development. How's the following as a prescription for a software development company:

"Encourage ferment and innovation. In advertising, the beginning of success is to be different, the beginning failure is to be the same.

Try to make working at Ogilvy and Mather fun. When people aren't having any fun, they seldom produce good advertising. Kill grimness with laughter. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs who spread gloom."

Ogilvy succeeded in advertising by going after First Class business, and doing it in a First Class way. A lot of the advertising industry was demoralized in the sense of considering this unrealistic. Is there a parallel with the software industry?

PS In addition to all this, Ogilvy considered himself still an ex-chef of the Majestic Hotel. He includes his favourite recipe:

Carbonnade Flamande, a Belgian stew ... Any tomfool can cook it to perfection: (1) Buy some very lean beef and get your butcher to slice it thin. Cut the slices into pieces the size of small dominoes. Brown them in hot fat. (2) Cut up as many onions as your eyes allow. Brown them in butter or margarine. (3) Make a brown roux. (4) Use the roux to thicken equal quantities of Campbell's beef consomm\'e and beer. Escoffier, who was a culinary pedant, specifies old Lambic beer. (5) Season this unctuous sauce with salt, pepper, and a lot of sugar. Add some bay leaves (6) Put the beef and the onions in an iron pot and cover with the sauce. Simmer until tender. This will take several hours -- and smell superb. (7) Serve in a copper or earthenware casserole, with finely chopped parsley on top, for pretty. (8) The only vegetable which goes with carbonnade flamande is plain boiled potatoes.

September 21, 2002

The paucity of entries shows that the announced objective, just to list books read, is too ambitious. I'll take it down a notch, following the example of Mark Weston, to list books other people make me want to read. That'll stimulate some growth in this page!

Suggested by Michael Levy: "Science Fiction 101" by Robert Silverberg, a collection containing an essay by Silverberg describing his history as budding writer. Budding writers will want to read this.

Books that Jos is reading: "Where Did It All Go Right?" by A. Alvarez; "Note Found in a Bottle" and "As Good As I Could Be" by Susan Cheever. All memoirs. Several by John Mortimer. Interesting how the public gets exposed to writer's lives almost to the exclusion of other lives. Which is in the nature of things. Reason number one, it's the writers who can write; the others don't. Number two, although writers also write other people's lives, they are more interested in their own. A real writer has no time for scholarship and meticulous research, which disqualifies them from writing other lives.

Of course, biographies do get written about generals or business men. These tend to be "as told to". As told to some professional writer, who, however, is no match for Nabokov or Vidal writing about themselves. So I guess I'll be stuck with knowing about what happened to writers. That may explain why I tend to think of writing as an alternative career. All because of imbalances in the nature of media. There are exceptions, about which later.

What these people have in common is that they are choosy about their work. Writing pays badly for most writers, so they tend to be broke. But I don't read about them driving taxis to pay their bills. The bills don't get paid. They go and live in a friend's unused villa in Tuscany, or flat in South Kensington. They will do reviews, or edit, or other loathsome literary tasks. But not drive a taxi.

Alvarez is perceptive about this and about another feature of literary people: they tend not to be thrifty. "He has the usual expensive habits -- he smokes, he drinks, he likes to eat out -- and he swiftly acquired the usual expensive responsibilities -- a family, a mortgage, an alimony." (p. 293 in Where Did It All Go Right.) Nothing fancy, like a yacht, but enough to be broke.

September 22, 2002
About only writers being able to write. It is a good approximation, but only that. There are exceptions: life is in the cracks.

One exception is the May entry, above. David Ogilvy was a business tycoon. And he's a writer! Curious coincidence.

Another cherished exception is the scientist Peter Medawar. He not only is a writer, but enjoyed it so much that he would laugh out loud at a particularly successful turn of phrase. His "Memoir of a Thinking Radish" is a delight to read. I was going to continue on Medawar's great essays, but no, this is only about memoirs.

September 23, 2002
Unkind spirits whisper that reviewers do not always read the books they write about. Forgiveable when they say kind things; less so when they pan the book. Whether these rumours are true or not, we don't expect a reviewer to plead guilty.

I just came across Jonathan Kay's review in the National Post of Saturday June 8, 2002 of "A New Kind of Science" by Stephen Wolfram. I think, for Kay to review this, is tantamount to classifying himself as one of the reviewers who dont necessarily read the books they write about. Which is fine!

I'm not sure whether I'll ever read it. Soon excellent copies will turn up in second-hand bookstores and then I'll pick up one and put it on my shelf with other books that I'll probably not read. Even if Wolfram is right and he is going to be regarded as the next great paradigm shifter after Isaac Newton, what's in it for me? As a scientist I have a life in the form of urgent projects to do. This may be a chance for a youngster who doesn't know what to do with himself to become a more successful scientist than I am.

What are the other books on the shelf of which I know I probably won't read them? One is the Bible. Every once in a while I read a snippet and I'm amazed at the inspired writing. Somehow it does not lead to more than another snippet a long time after. I have a life; some people I know will say that it's not the right one without regularly reading the Bible.

Another one is "Synergetics: an Exploration in the Geometry of Thinking" by Buckminster Fuller. Is there anyone who read this? When I get my bookshelves and life a bit more organized, I'll find its box and have it sit there on a shelf, silently gazing at me, the way the mountains around Banff and Cranmore do. This way it may be picked up, opened at a random place, and put back. Every next time it becomes more likely that the penny drops.

What I did read, several times, is "Cosmic Fishing" by E.J. Applewhite, a delightful account of the saga of getting "Synergetics" written and published.

November 12, 2002

  author={A. Alvarez},
  title={Where Did It All Go Right?},
  publisher={William Morrow},

Somewhere in this book, it must say something like: "I was born in 1930". Being a well-written book, this is not in the obvious place, and I can't find it to check whether it was really 1930. If not, it was close.

Alvarez was born into a well-to-do Jewish family of merchants and entrepreneurs. He was sent to a proper boarding school, declined his uncle's offer to be groomed as his successor in the business, and went to study literature in Oxford.

He was obsessed with literature, wrote poems and criticism, got his degree with a "first" and was set for an academic career. His scholarships took him to the US in the fifties. This made a profound impression on the born-and-bred Londoner and Oxford man. And he loved it. Though his family were pork-eaters, they were Jewish enough to feel that their position in England was as ... well, Jews. For Alvarez, America was exhilarating. It was all sufficiently unsettling for him to decline the offer of an academic position and to decide to live by his wits, on his writing.

His early preoccupation was with poetry. He wrote it. More importantly, he wrote criticisms of poetry. He edited anthologies. As reviewer for the Observer weekly newspaper, he had the poets he thought important published for this wide audience.

Networking was the essence of his life. It was essential to discuss with poets, authors, and critics for him to know what he needed to know. It was essential to eke out a meagre living to remind editors and publishers that he needed work. The network provides rich fodder for these memoirs: we get surprising views of a surprising selection of people.

His background (Oundle School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford) set him up to be the supreme literary snob. Somehow he evolved into the opposite. The memoir is interesting for the glimpses into other worlds, such a poker, car racing, rock climbing. One of the ways in which Alvarez earned his living was with commercial writing. It is fascinating to see how a poet and poetry critic masters the kind of journalism that makes The New Yorker magazine publish his work as one of their famously long stories about high-stakes poker at Las Vegas. Or get Shell Oil to sponsor his book on the production of oil in the North Sea. This is journalism at its best. Supposedly only learned by practice and professional training. We don't read anything about anything like that happening. Maybe writing and criticising poetry is enough. Any many rewritings; he does tell about that. That, as writers go, his first drafts are not much good. But that he is good at rewriting.

A joy to read. Inspiring for aspiring writers: good bread-and-butter writing is a worthy challenge for the best minds.

November 30, 2002
I regularly read a haiku. Just one. How this happens is a story by itself. The haikus that I get make me curious: what's it about? Is it meant to be The Art of the Nonsequitur, or is it more the The Art of the Near-Miss Sequitur? Rather than passively wait for the next haiku to hit me, I went out to look for some.
Click here.
(How about a haiku with links in it? I mean, a haiper-text hyku.)

June 16, 2003 Well, well, more than six months without reading anything? Not as bad as that. It was more a matter of neglecting the diary, as well as neglecting lots of other things.

William Poundstone: "Prisoner's Dilemma", Oxford University Press, 1992.
This is a mixture of many things: biography of John von Neumann, popular exposition of game theory, history of military gaming, development of and controversy about nuclear bombs, game theory in sociology, economics, military strategy, and more. It's all jumbled about in an unpretentious way.
Poundstone writes marvelously lucidly about the subject matter that can at times become somewhat technical. Early on he explains that e.g. chess is not a game, at least not in the sense of game theory. To explain the difference he reminds us, as introduction, how a wise parent makes two mutually envious children share a piece of cake so that both are satisfied: one gets to divide the piece, the other one gets to choose.
Here's sample of Poundstone's homely introduction to yet another variant on the Prisoner's Dilemma:

It's late May, next to the last day of school. You and a friend decide it would be a great joke to show up on the last day of school with some ridiculous haircut. Egged on by your clique, you both swear you'll get the haircut.
A night of indecision follows. As you anticipate your parents' and your teachers' reactions to the haircut, you start wondering if your friend is really going to go through with the plan.
Not that you don't want the plan to succeed: the best possible outcome would be for both of you to get the haircut.
The trouble is, it would be awful to be the only one to show up with the haircut. That would be the worst possible outcome.
You're not above enjoying your friend's embarrassment. If you didn't get the haircut, but your friend did, and looked like a real jerk, that would be almost as good as when both of you got the haircut.
After mulling things over, you conclude that it wouldn't really be all that bad if neither of you got the haircut. Maybe everyone will just forget about it. (This is what your mother says will happen.)
Of the possible outcomes, your first choice is for mutual cooperation (both get the haircut), second is unilateral defection (you don't get the haircut, your friend does), third is mutual defection (both chicken out), and fourth is unilateral cooperation (you get the haircut, your friend doesn't). Assume your friend has the same preferences. The barbershop in the mall closes at nine. What do you do?

A theme that runs through all of Poundstone's book is how the dilemmas that are studied in game theory hold their participants in an iron grip, preventing them from choosing the actions that benefit both. This is the way the atomic bomb came into being, the arms race developed, that causes "rogue states" to jump into the fray.

August 2003

Got a slew of money or business books. Read most of them.

"Money Mischief" by Milton Friedman
"The Cash Nexus" Is and looks like "what I did on my sabbatical".
"The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea" by John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge

"Security Analysis" by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, first edition, 1934. This is one of those books whose existence gradually seeps into your consciousness. In my case, it may have been at least a decade between first contact and actually setting mine own eye on the pages inside the book. Delays like this are but one of the things that have prevented me from getting rich.

The first act is in a second-hand bookstore, where MHvE comes across a curious volume by one "Adam Smith". Here is an introduction pulled off the web (Google: +"adam smith" +goodman):

"In the mid-1960s, money manager George J.W. Goodman began to write a series of irreverent and witty columns for New York magazine under the borrowed name of capitalism's founding theorist, Adam Smith. As "Adam Smith," Goodman went on to write several bestsellers about economics, the stock market, and global capitalism, including The Money Game, Supermoney, and Paper Money, ... "

One of Goodman's stories is about Warren Buffett (imagine: I heard about Buffet over ten years ago; it never occurred to me one could actually do something about such a find). It must have been in this early story where Graham's approach to investing is mentioned. Another early sighting was in Burton G. Malkiel's "A Random Walk Down Wall Street".

All these early intimations amount to intimidation. The Great, the Legendary Benjamin Graham. Something one wisely nods to when hearing him mentioned by a commentator on the radio, but not something one actually reads. So I don't know what came over me, but suddenly last summer, I had the book in my hands. Not embarking on a big project, the only thing I intended to do was to skim through some of it. Big surprise: wherever I opened the weighty tome, I was captivated and read several pages on. I got out my dummy's intro to reading financial statements to get reminded of some of the basics. Then I went back reading some more Graham and Dodd.

The prose is out of this world, literally. In our world, the light, the chatty, the witty is the norm. In some media, such as The Economist, it does not get too much in the way of a serious argument or useful information, but even there chatty and witty is the norm. Only when reading Graham and Dodd was I reminded what an unnecessary burden contemporary writers take on by not just giving it straight to the reader.

This is what Graham and Dodd do: they give the information and the argument straight without trying to other things as well. Their prose is sedate, which suits the subject matter well. They calmly report on all the shenanigans that we have read about in the newspapers recently. Except it is the late 1920s and not the late 1990s. There is nothing new under the sun.

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