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Posts about books (old posts, page 30)

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Edwin A. Abbott

1884


A satire of Victorian society, this little book also manages to be a pretty good introduction to abstract higher geometry. Written from the perspective of an inhabitant of a two-dimensional universe, it features social descriptions, dream sequences into one dimension, a subsequent venture into three dimensions, and the narrator's final coming to terms with his society's inability to believe his insights.

The parallels with Gulliver's Travels are obvious, and Abbott is a better scientist and mathematician than Swift but a less subtle satirist. Having said that, he manages to land some blows: the upper class aversion to "feeling" is probably my favourite, but his treatment of the women of Flatland and the need for (and impact of) wholesale social lying also bring a smile.

3/5. Finished 12 June 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield

2013


Part memoir, part self-help book, this is an excellent overview of an astronaut's life and the mental attitudes that have made it possible. Chris Hadfield flew into space three times, and manages to share both the excitement and the boredom and attention to detail that allowed him to successfully become an astronaut and crown his career by commanding the International Space Station.

4/5. Finished 25 May 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Solaris

Solaris

Stanisław Lem

1961


An atmospheric and episodic tale of first contact. The descriptions are wonderful, and the focus on character is far more detailed than is common even in first-class science fiction. Lem leaves most of the plot elements unfinished, which is somewhat dissatisfying at one level but leaves plenty of space for the reader's imagination to play.

3/5. Finished 14 May 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

Michael Lewis

2014


Another of Michael Lewis' now-classic tales of Wall Street misadventure, this one focusing on the all-but-unseen - and even less understood - growth of high-frequency trading (HFT). This one follows the efforts of a small group of insiders to create a new stock exchange that's immune both by policy and by design to the arbitrage and strategies HFT uses to game the conventional exchanges. A fascinating list of characters cross the pages, including Russian programmers, disaffected traders, and a network guy from Dublin - all working to make a system that was paying them well disappear in the interests of fairness (and their own long-term financial gain).

At one level this book is less satisfying than The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, perhaps because the story still hasn't finished. The reader is left wanting to know the fate of the new IEX exchange, and the way the market changed as a result. For a techie, it's also unsatisfying that so much of the technology remains unexplored, although it would obviously have made the book inaccessible to anyone but a computer junkie: perhaps there's a much more technical follow-up that could be written.

Although the story mainly revolves a case of market failure - high-frequency traders capturing huge value while taking no risk and providing no real advantage - it's also in a strange way an example of market success, when Goldman Sachs and other banks realise that their support of HFT is simply too risky for the gains they're capturing themselves. There's also an irony in the banks' worrying that, in the case of another crash, the banks will take the losses while the HFT firms walk away with the gains - which is exactly the reverse of the situation after the 2008 crash, where the public took up the banks' bad debts. Whether this is a sign of things to come is hard to decide, but it does show how even the most dysfunctional system can be changed when people recognise its dysfunction and are prepared to act to remediate it.

4/5. Finished 03 May 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)