2011 Books

In terms of volume, 2011 was an average year, with 23 books read. It was also average in terms of quality – no good or bad stand-outs.

2010 Books

For no other reason than for the sake of completeness, here are the books I read in 2010. I will be better about writing here this year, I promise.

2009 Books

My one sentence movie reviews for 2009 seems to have struck a chord, so let’s see if I get a response from someone (Dan Brown?) for my books of 2009.

  • The Pump House Gang – I generally like Tom Wolfe; a few of these essays were excellent, like the La Jolla surfers and Hugh Hefner, but many others were incredibly boring.
  • Twelve Hours’ Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old – Bought when we were desperate for the girls to sleep through the night.  This had much more practical real world advice than other sleep books we’ve read.
  • Childhood’s End – Revisiting a high school book.
  • Brave New World – Another high school book.  These two were paired together, probably because they offer two different views of a Utopian society.  I enjoyed them both the second time around.
  • Tesla: Man Out of Time – A long read, dry at times.  I found it hard to respect Tesla at times; he seemed to be a genius but had trouble following through on so many great ideas.
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns – Hard to believe, but this was equal to Kite Runner in my opinion.  Not as much heartache in this one though.
  • Underworld – I really disliked this book; worst book of the year.  It was extremely popular when it came out (still is), but I just didn’t get it.  I was very disappointed by the end and am turned off Delillo now.  Tell me if there’s another one of his that I would like better.
  • Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know – Very good, but a little scary.  Am I remembering to follow through on all 10 secrets everyday?
  • Bringing Down the House – Excellent, a page turner.  Way better than the movie, naturally.
  • House to House: A Soldier’s Memoir – This was an amazing story.  It definitely got my heart racing at times and gave me a whole new level of respect for soldiers in Iraq.  It was a tough call between this and The Right Stuff, but I’m giving this best book of the year.
  • The Pillars of the Earth – Really good, fastest 1,000 pages I’ve ever read.
  • The Right Stuff – Two Wolfe books in a year.  This was one of my favorites for the year.  I loved the dialog and all the different personalities Wolfe developed.
  • The World Without Us – A big disappointment, although it was because my expectations were different.  I wanted a whole lot more detail about how things will fall apart, and less about how the natural world will evolve in our absence.
  • The Black Swan – I liked this book, but it was very dense at times.  He was quite funny in some parts, which was unexpected.
  • The Murder Book – Just so-so.  Something I read so we could get rid of it without guilt.
  • John Adams – Great book about an under-appreciated president.  Got a little misty at the end when he and Jefferson (SPOILER ALERT!) died.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven – Not a great effort from Krakauer.  There was probably too much to cover in just one book, although he did do a good job explaining a very bizarre faith.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I thought this was good, but perhaps a bit overrated.  I still think I’ll read the next in the series.
  • The Lost Symbol – I’ll admit it – I like the Dan Brown books.  His style doesn’t really bother me; you know what you’re getting, kind of like a summer popcorn movie.  I thought this was a good follow up to one of the best selling books of all time, which is a tough act to follow.
  • Casino Royale – I was very surprised how much I liked this.  Bond has some issues with women, which doesn’t come out as much in the movies.  I’ll definitely pick up some others in this series.

Bookmooch Update

Last year I published some thoughts on the future of Bookmooch and some graphs that seemed to support my experiences using the site. Almost another year has passed and I thought I would update the chart again.  I don’t have much time these days to analyze in more detail, so I’ll only give a few thoughts and comments about my latest experiences.

In the past six months I have consistently added more books to my wishlist, but have seen an abrupt decline in the number of wishlist books becoming available. This may have something to do with books being reserved for others without ever being available to the general public. It may also just be an indication that I desire popular books people aren’t willing to give away.  I did find my recent experiences with Bookmooch summed up nicely by this quote from the recent survey:

When I first joined Bookmooch a couple of years ago, wishlisted books were much more readily available and I was constantly mooching and sending. With all of the changes, I very rarely get notification for any books on my wishlist. Often when I do get a notification, the book is already reserved for someone else or it is no longer available.

The graph below is an update of the one I published on 9/24/08, showing points, inventory, # of wishlist books, and number of mooches over time.  All of these have been normalized to the number of members listing at least one book in inventory, with the last one per 100 users.

As expected, points and wishlist books are rising while inventory is falling. I suspect there is a lot of unsatisfied demand out there, or too many points chasing too few books. The mooches / 100 users trend is showing some interesting behavior.  I did expect this to level off somewhere below 100 mooches / 100 users.  There have been a couple of periods of declining activity recently and I’m not sure what to make of that. There was also a sudden spike – maybe a purging of bad accounts?

As I mentioned before, I love the Bookmooch concept. However, I’ve recently started donating books to the library again because I find myself sitting on a pile of points with nothing to mooch and I don’t want to spend money shipping books to accumulate points I probably won’t be able to use.  That mentality certainly isn’t helping increase the availability of books.

The Future of Bookmooch

For the past year or so I’ve been using Bookmooch, a great free book swapping service. After signing up, you list books you are willing to give away, gaining 0.1 points per book.  Once you have a full point, you can spend that point by requesting a book from another member.  If you send a book to someone else, you gain a point.  You also earn 0.1 points by posting feedback about the swapping experience.  Finally, if you send a book to a foreign country, you earn three points (the requester spends two points).

I love the service, but lately it is getting harder to find books to spend my points on.  I have a feeling it’s related to the points system, but I’m not sure how to best demonstrate that.  Over the long term, the points system doesn’t seem to be sustainable because of inflation.  For example, the transaction nets +1.1 points for the giver and -0.9 points for the receiver, for a net gain of 0.2 points; this gain is due to the 0.1 for adding the book and the 0.1 for posting feedback.  The foreign country book exchange results in even more inflation, +1.2 for the transaction.

I decided to look through some of the publicly available stats to see if there were any trends to back up my hunch.  There were a few metrics I found interesting: total number of points in the system, total # of books saved in wishlists, and total # of books available in the system (inventory).  I normalized all these over the total number of users and graphed the result below (x-axis is time from 8/18/06 to today).

What does this imply?

  • The number of books in wishlists is growing while inventory is falling.  With the price of a book fixed at one point, I think this is creating a supply / demand imbalance.
  • Note that the inventory curve started positive and seemed to outpace the wishlist curve, but then the inventory peaked and started declining.  Part of this may be explained by users signing up to check out Bookmooch, but not adding any inventory.  I think this relationship also shows that point inflation is taking effect; users are finding themselves with more points and are slowly stripping away inventory in the system.
  • All the while, points per user is continuing to climb.

What can we expect if we fast-forward a couple of years?  Existing users will have a large number of points to spend, dozens (hundreds?) of books in their wishlist, but very little inventory to meet that demand.  When a new user joins and posts their valuable inventory, existing users will snap it up very quickly, thanks to wishlist notifications.  That new user will find themselves flush with points but very little to spend those points on.  They proceed to add dozens of books to the wishlist.  The cycle continues.

I don’t even know if the system truly is broken; an economist could do a much better job of analyzing the data and would probably prove me wrong on many points.  But, I have a few ideas that may improve the points system.

  • Eliminate the 0.1 points for adding a new book.  Either require new users to give a book before they can receive one, or give them one point for free after signing up to encourage future trading.  Or, give the 0.1 point for listing the book and the remaining 0.9 points when the book is mooched.
  • Likewise, remove the 0.1 points for providing feedback.  Users will want to give feedback for free in order to clear out their “Waiting to Receive” listing.  This combined with the first idea will help eliminate point inflation.
  • Continue to reward users for sending books internationally, but give only two points instead of three.  For the receiver, continue to deduct two points; I’d consider raising this to three points to create some downward pressure on # of total points.
  • For wishlist books, introduce the concept of advanced notification for the price of one point.  For example, two points will give you the opportunity to view and mooch a wishlist book 24 hours before other users who are willing to spend only one point.  As the transaction happens, make that extra point vanish rather than transferring it to the giver.  I think reducing the total number of points will help encourage existing users to list more books.
  • To create a true market without an artificially set price of one point per book, allow users to enter bids for a book.  Some of the extra points could be transferred to the giver, but bleed off at least one point per transaction.  This type of system would make it nearly impossible for new users to obtain in-demand books, so I don’t think this would match with the founder’s goals for Bookmooch.

My gut tells me there are too many points in the system, with too many users chasing too few books.  Removing point inflation and introducing some mechanisms for burning up points may help, but there may be some long term effects that I’m not considering.

As I said before, I love the site and these are just some thoughts about the underlying market dynamics and not criticisms by any means.  I’m really interesting if anyone else out there has thought about these issues and would care to refine / correct some of my thoughts.

Update – 9/23/08: As expected, there have been a few discussions on the Bookmooch site about point inflation.  This post recognizes that inflation exists in the system and the end result may be that “everyone will eventually end up with a bunch of points they can’t use.”  And, this comment captures the inflation issue as well; lots of other good ideas in that thread, including limiting the 0.1 point gain for the first 20 books added.

Update – 9/24/08:  John Buckman from Bookmooch posted a comment with some good insights into the system.  Based on the feedback in his first point, I’ve updated the chart to normalize all values over total users who have listed books to give, whereas previously the values were over all total users.  This method should remove users with inactive accounts, but will ignore those users who are active but have no inventory.  Still not perfect, but maybe slightly improved.  The total # of points line (blue) is still skewed higher because points of inactive users are still being counted.

Looks like the biggest change is with the inventory / member line, which shows a plateau with gradual decline rather than the peak and drop off in the original graph.

I also added in a new measurement, number of current mooches per 100 users who are listing books to give (green line).  This validates point #4, that mooching activity is on the rise, not just in total, but also on a per user basis and contradicts my hypothesis that users are finding less mooching opportunities out there.  It will be interesting to see if this line ever crosses the 100 mooches / 100 users mark.

Thoughts on Einstein

Sublte is the Lord After many years of putting it off, I’ve finally started a biograpy of Einstein that has been on my shelf: Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein.  I will confess, this book is well beyond my mental capabilities at this point in my life.  Maybe 11 years ago I could have followed the equations; these days they all sound vaguely familiar but I find myself skimming through the tough parts.

I’m only about a third through the book, but I wanted to put down some things I’ve learned along the way.  I’ll keep adding to this list as I make my way through the book.

  • With his work in statistical physics, Einstein helped (with others) confirm the existence of atoms and molecules.  At the time there were doubts in the fields of physics and chemistry about the physical existence of atoms and their role in chemical reactions or phenomena like Brownian Motion.  Einstein’s work provided direct evidence of their existence and helped tie together the fields of physics and chemistry by showing that the same particles (atoms) were at play in both fields.  The equations he developed also provided several new methods for accurately calculating Avogadro’s Number.
  • Much of his early work was done without access to scientific publications.  A common theme is that Einstein would independently discover equations that were published years earlier.  In my opinion this is further confirmation of his genius.
  • In his younger days he would meet with friends to discuss Hume and Poincare.  This is what he would do for fun.  What hope do the rest of us have, with our US Weekly and Grey’s Anatomy?  Again, the guy was a genius.
  • I’m always amazed at how popular the man is and yet how completely inaccessible his work is to 99.9% of people.  Ask almost anyone about the impact of Einstein and they can probably offer up E=mc^2 (with no idea what that means), something about the space-time continuum, bending of space by gravity (the bowling ball-on-a-mattress analogy) and maybe describe length or time contractions as you approach the speed of light (twins paradox).  I’m certainly no better – I consider myself firmly in this camp.   All of the analogies and thought experiments that are used to explain Einstein’s work only seem to scratch the surface of what are truly revolutionary ideas about physics.   I doubt he spent much time thinking about novel ways of explaining these very diffcult concepts.

That’s all for now, more to come as I wade through this book.