Favorite Books of 2018

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 This year I read 108 books. You can view them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

Why did I fall short of the 131 books I read in 2016 or the 135 I read in 2015? Three reasons... Firstly, for scheduling reasons, I'm blogging this a month early like last year. Secondly, the number of books I read is a counter indicator of my productivity, and I had a whole mess of work deadlines this year. And finally, podcasts… There are so, so many good podcasts to listen to…

Regardless, I read some incredible books this year. Without further ado, here are my...

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2018

1) The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. With so many negative headlines in the news nowadays, it felt good to read something so overwhelmingly positive. Matt Ridley is optimistic about everything. He presents the data and statistics to demonstrate that global averages for life-expectancy, poverty rates, health, crime, hunger, and infectious diseases, are rosier than they’ve ever been in history. He quotes from Malthusian pessimists who have been predicted global apocalypse for centuries. He ties human evolution itself to trade, specialization, and the exchange of ideas. He believes that the more humans interact and share ideas, the more innovation and prosperity humanity will achieve. Thus, he sees the internet not as a social calamity but as an enormous cause for optimism, accelerating human achievement.

2) Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. Rules of Civility is masterful prose. What craftsmanship, each paragraph brimming with insight. Towles is a literary giant, one of the greatest living writers.

3) Educated by Tara Westover. Tara Westover’s true story of growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in the Idaho mountains. She endures tremendous abuse and physical danger and somehow manages to escape, eventually earning a degree from Harvard. I could not put this book down.

4) Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Another extraordinary book from the author of Hamilton. Chernow confronts Washington’s slave-holding head-on but still manages to paint a portrait of a man of rare virtue and bravery. It is safe to say that without Washington’s leadership, there would be no America. His life is an extraordinary tale, from his incredible rise as a young man to his gentlemanly conduct, his courage in battle, and his strength in the face of myriad health issues. He defeated the endless assaults of his detractors (like that scoundrel Jefferson) simply by keeping his head above the fray and never stooping to their level. An inspiring book.

5) The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. A colorful and incredibly well-researched account of World War One. The author’s strength is in developing a three-dimensional cast of characters and all their tangled alliances. I couldn't actually follow her battle scenes. Still, she paints a vivid portrait of a devastating period in human history. I could never understand the cause of World War One when I was in school, but now I feel like I can explain it pretty handily if given thirty minutes and several cups of coffee.

6) First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung. This is a riveting autobiography of Luong Ung surviving the Cambodian genocide. In fairness, I kept thinking that much of this book may be embellished since she seems to have an eidetic memory of events that happened to her as a kindergartner. Nevertheless, this book is an absolute page-turner. It’s extremely well-written and a sobering primer on the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

7) The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston. This is an astonishing true-crime tale about a serial killer in Italy who has never been caught. When the author begins investigating the corrupt and incompetent Florence police department, the police make him and his writing partner their primary suspects. A pretty incredible tale that will make you feel better about the relative competence of the American criminal justice system.

8) The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. This book tackles the important topic of what the internet is doing to our brains. Admittedly, it’s a bit prolix, but maybe that’s just the internet shrinking my attention span. The author’s take is not all doom and gloom. Granted, the internet has demonstrably shortened our attention spans while lowering our reading comprehension, but the author makes the case that we have the neuroplasticity to rewire our minds if we choose.

9) Contact by Carl Sagan. A fun read about aliens finally making contact with earth through SETI. The plot plays out in a very logical way. I didn’t love the cynical ending, but the book was a fun and memorable read overall.

10) The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson. Controversial former London mayor Boris Johnson does an admirable job of conveying just how dark Britain's prospects were by 1940. Hitler controlled Europe. America was isolationist. England stood alone against the Reich. And Churchill, at the helm, was surrounded by politicians eager for England to sign a treaty with the Nazis. Johnson makes the case that but for Churchill, England would have capitulated to the Nazis and the course of world history would have been profoundly different. Johnson also lauds Churchill’s clear-sighted appraisal of Stalin and his foresight in anticipating the cold war. The book is not trying to be academic, nor is it presented chronologically. It is more an encomium for Churchill and, in that, it is very successful. It is also a tacit bulwark to the Great Man Theory that has been challenged by thinkers like Tolstoy in War and Peace. And in that regard, I think it is successful as well.

Are Los Angelinos Flakier than New Yorkers?

Los Angelinos are famously stereotyped as being flaky. The idea is that people who live in LA are less likely to return an email or phone call on time and more likely to show up late or not at all. Having spent half my life living in the greater New York area and half my life living in the greater Los Angeles area, I feel uniquely qualified to evaluate the two groups with some impartiality. And I must admit, I have noticed that my New York friends seem to be very reliable about returning texts and keeping scheduled plans.

I decided to test whether my LA friends are in fact flakier or if I am simply succumbing to a confirmation bias supporting the stereotype of the flaky Angelino. I tracked all correspondence with my New York and Los Angeles friends for a 10-day period and sorted the data set into groups:


In the past week, I actually had several New York friends visiting Los Angeles so I could even compare how good New Yorkers are at keeping plans versus cancelling at the last minute:


Granted, my 10-day data set isn’t large enough to be even remotely scientific, but the trend does seem pretty one-sided. By the numbers, my Los Angeles friends appear undeniably flakier than my New York friends. Of course, I cannot make a general statement about all 8 million New Yorkers or all 8 million Los Angelinos. In 10 days, I interacted with some 48 individuals, which, I will admit, isn’t quite enough to make universal statements about 16 million people.

As for the quality of the data-gathering experiment, there may be a few confounding variables. For instance, it could be the case that my New York friends simply like me better. However, there is no clear reason to suppose this. One of the New Yorkers I met in person this week is a new acquaintance and another I have known only a short while. It seems more likely that my LA relationships should be warmer since I actually live here.

I do think it could be said that my New York friends who were visiting Los Angeles might have been more likely to keep their plans because they were only in town a short while. However, I am not convinced of this. Several of the New Yorkers endured such considerable scheduling and traffic obstacles that they would have been well within their rights to cancel. And yet they did not. This must surely count for something.

Given that all my available data is so one-sided, I do think it is safe to propose that there are measurable cultural differences and etiquette differences between my friends from both coasts. And lest I offend any of my Los Angeles friends, I think there are valid geographical and logistical reasons that LA may have developed a culture of flakiness:

  1. Los Angeles is gigantic, sprawling, and filled with traffic. So everyone understands the difficulty of showing up anywhere.

  2. Los Angeles lacks New York’s reliable public transportation system (some people try to argue that the LA subway system is improving; but in my experience, the LA metro has never saved me time in getting me anywhere I actually needed to go).

  3. Californians may, indeed, be more “laid back” and, therefore, more forgiving of flakiness. Whereas in New York, flaky behavior may be considered disrespectful and is less socially tolerated.

If I have offended any of my fellow Angelinos by confronting our stereotype of flakiness, please send me an email sharing your thoughts. I may or may not respond to it within a week...

Favorite Books of 2017

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 This year I read 116 books. You can view them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

Why did I fall short of the 131 books I read in 2016, or the 135 I read in 2015? Three reasons... (1) For scheduling reasons, I'm blogging this a month early (2) Generally, the number of books I read is a counter indicator of my productivity, and I had a whole mess of work deadlines this year (3) Podcasts… So many good podcasts…

Regardless, I read some incredible books this year. Without further ado, here are my...

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2017

1) Dear Theo by Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo are absolutely heart breaking. In the early letters, a young van Gogh has no idea he’s going to be a painter, he just keeps praying to make it through seminary school. He lives in awful conditions, ministering to coal miners. He writes that he doesn’t think he has the stomach for suicide.

His letters reveal him to be an avid reader. He constantly references authors like Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Tolstoy, and Voltaire. In the early letters, he’s only drawing because he can’t afford paints. Eventually, he learns water colors. Finally, in his last years, he moves into oils.

He’s so impoverished he keeps getting sick and losing his teeth. He eventually loses his mind as well, famously fighting with Paul Gauguin, cutting off his own ear, and ending up in a mad house. He can’t sell Starry Night. He doesn’t know what to do with Sunflowers. By the time he commits suicide, he has only managed to sell one painting.

2) A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Absolutely delightful. Possibly my favorite book this year. Short on plot but long on eloquent writing. This book has humor, poignancy, and depth. If you love Russian novels, then you will love this American author’s version of a Russian novel.

3) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Captivating and gorgeous writing. Just vivid and honest prose that would make Hemingway proud. It’s a modern retelling of Hamlet, set on a dog-breeding farm in northern Wisconsin. This book is extremely long and I loved every bit of it until the last ten pages. I would offer a spoiler alert, but Hamlet is 400 years old.

4) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamon. If the way to judge the quality of a book is by how much you think about it afterward, then this is a sensational book. It’s a fascinating read, crammed full of persuasive and instructive ideas. The main thrust of the book is to explain why so many technological and societal advances happened to civilizations on the Eurasian landmass, rather than anywhere else. It turns out that the Eurasian continent simply has far more flora and fauna capable of domestication than any other continent. So if you’re trying to start a civilization in, say, prehistoric Australia, you’re operating from a huge disadvantage. The book’s thesis is that many of the advancements made by European civilization may simply be the result of biological determinism.

5) Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick. A fascinating read. King Philip’s War was – per capita – the bloodiest war in American history, and I was never taught about it in school. We tend to think of Plymouth Rock, and then skip 150 years to the American Revolution. But this elides an amazingly complex period. The version of pilgrim history I learned in school was radically oversimplified, namely, that the Native Americans fed the Pilgrims and then the Pilgrims turned around and killed them. Turns out there were 55 years of relative peace and cooperation between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, thanks to intricate diplomacy and relationship-building. When war finally broke out, it was in many ways fought and won by Native Americans against other Native Americans. There were heroes and scoundrels on both sides.

6) Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. So fun, and bristling with style and creativity. The prescience of this book is astonishing. Published in 1992, Snowcrash correctly anticipates the internet, Virtual Reality, and even coins the term "avatar." It seems that on every page there is a concept Stephenson has anticipated by 25 years. I savored every page of this book - the writing is electrifying.

7) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Here is a book that really captures the imagination. It wonderfully recreates the feel of a medieval monastery. The story presents a compelling murder mystery, but offers so much more. The philosophical and theological debates throughout are absolutely riveting.

8) Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo. Extraordinary writing. So much wit, insight, and depth. This year I also read Everybody’s Fool and Bridge of Sighs. Russo is an American treasure.

9) Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson. One of the most jaw-droppingly entertaining stories I've read in a long time. It is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story from the Dickensian upbringing in Bronxville, to a four hundred million dollar fortune, to addiction and destitution. Just an astonishing tale and, hopefully, redemptive.

10) Next by Michael Lewis. I’ve now read every Michael Lewis book and each book he writes has such a consistently high level of quality. I believe that many financial analysts, financial journalists, and money managers are absolute charlatans and this book provides plenty of supporting evidence. The book is incredibly prescient and modern for 2001. It brilliantly predicts everything from the rise of internet advertising to the advent of the online shared economy. A fun read.

Favorite Books of 2016

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 This year I read 131 books. You can view most of them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

I read some whoppers this year, like Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ron Chernow's riveting Alexander Hamilton, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (I choked up at the end). And I read some literature, like Virgil's Aeneid, James Clavell's King Rat, and E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. But of all the extraordinary books I read, what follows are the ones that stuck with me the most, making them my...

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2016

1) Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Extremely well written, keenly observed, often funny, often poignant, and without a single false note. The plot kept surprising me as well. It was a little experimental (an entire chapter without commas, for instance), but only in ways that served the narrative. Really terrific writing.



2) The North Water by Ian McGuire. Excellent writing. I mean it's extraordinarily dark, violent, and nihilistic, but ultimately the hero emerges with his morality intact. It's a really terrific depiction of the whaling trade. In tone, it reads like a deeply gritty and less dignified Patrick O'Brien.



3) A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. I thought it was sensational. Four strangers all meet on a rooftop with the intention of ending it all...and somehow develop a fascinating and unlikely friendship. Hornby rigorously prevents the narrative from becoming trite or sentimental. And with his usual mix of humor and pathos, he creates a uniquely enjoyable story.


4) Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. Wonderful. Twain's travelog contains observations and insights on Europe and the Middle East that remain astonishingly modern. Through Twain's lens, Italy, Greece, and Turkey seem remarkably unchanged from 1869. A fantastically informative and entertaining window into the past.



5) Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Brilliantly well-written portrait of a downtrodden man trying to take control of his life. This book affected my mood for weeks. Russo is like the Tolstoy of small town America, examining the locale from its wealthiest citizens all the way down to its poorest. And like Tolstoy, he seems to show that the drama of human existence - all the trials and tribulations - affect everyone equally. Every life has both tragedies and triumphs.


6) You're Not Doing it Right by Michael Ian Black. Brutally honest and incredibly poignant, this book is genuinely moving. Michael Ian Black is best known as a comedian, but he is a very powerful writer. So many comedians churn out superficial memoirs and Michael Ian Black is a stunning exception. Each of his stories has the humor of David Sedaris, but often mingled with the tragic emotional depth of a John Cheever or a Martin Amis. This year, I also read his books, Navel Gazing and America, You Sexy Bitch.

7) Total Recall - My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Say what you will about Arnold Schwarzenegger, his is an incredible story. Raised in an Austrian village with no running water, he became a world champion by age 20. He became a millionaire in Los Angeles real estate before he ever made a dollar from acting. He then married a Kennedy and became a governor. His work ethic, business savvy, and charisma are astonishing. This is one of my favorite books in a long time.

8) The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud. Truly fine writing, not a single loose thread, everything in its place. And with funny dialog and description to boot. Now that I also write middle grade fiction, I appreciate the challenges of the genre; and Jonathan Stroud makes it all look easy. I particularly appreciate that when Stroud's characters are in the middle of action set pieces, Stroud still focuses on revealing character and relationships. He is a first class writer, and the Lockwood & Co series is terrific for middle grade readers.

9) Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman (along with his partner Amos Tversky) is the Nobel Prize winning theorist behind prospect theory. This book is like a Malcolm Gladwell book on steroids; it's chock full of surprising revelations about cognitive biases, supported by Kahneman and Tversky's research into psychology and economics. The bottom line is that we humans are terrible at estimation and our minds are cluttered with logical fallacies.

10) The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly. Wow, this book is extremely good. It had me hooked from start to finish. Incredibly well-researched and packed with smart ideas, this series revolves around a really clever and charismatic character. Connelly is so skilled a writer that he can make you root for a defense lawyer who advertises on buses. I read a lot of Connelly this year, and his research, his intellect, and his consistency are just astonishing.

Book Tour


Yesterday, on book tour for Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas, I visited schools in Oklahoma City. At Central Middle School, I met librarian-extraordinaire Caradith Craven. Her students created a tremendous amount of art based on Addison Cooke.

A group of eighth graders put on a play, acting out scenes from Addison Cooke. Other students sang a song on the importance of reading books.


After the sixth and seventh grade presentations, Ms. Craven showed me to her library, which was decked out with more Addison-inspired student art. In the library, I did Q&A's with sixth graders who asked a lot of smart questions.


Below is a quick snapshot of Ms. Craven. One student, Wenny, not only drew the very detailed poster with the tiger, she also performed a rip-roaring version of Solfeggietto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach during our lunch. Another student, Ben, impressed me with his meticulously designed poster, and by wearing a tie to school like Addison Cooke.


I was pretty amazed by this Addison Cooke-themed pumpkin, as well as by the Addison Cooke-carved egg. I have no idea how they made it. I have never seen a carved egg before, though the Oklahoma students seemed pretty familiar with the concept.


After the Q&A, Ms. Craven organized a luncheon. I have never eaten on a placemat of my own face before, but from here on, I plan to make a habit of it.


At the luncheon, the icing on the cake was the Addison Cooke cake; it really took the cake.


In the afternoon, I traveled to the equally delightful Heartland Middle School for another presentation, where I met media director and world-traveler Janet Miller. With the help of Heartland's dedicated drama teacher, students put on an elaborate play of several scenes from Addison Cooke. If you look closely at the photo below, you can spot the zipline connecting Addison's apartment with his neighbor Raj's apartment. In the middle of the play, Addison successfully slides a walkie-talkie along the zipline to land in Raj's bed. This pretty much made my day.


Thank you to Central Middle School and Heartland Middle School for celebrating authors, for celebrating books, and for a truly memorable day!

Addison Cooke is Coming to Stores on October 11

Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas is now available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and wherever books are sold. You can also learn more about the book on Goodreads. If you need still more information, visit Penguin Random House. The book is due out on October 11. Can't wait!

Favorite Books of 2015

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 This year I read 135 books. You can view most of them on Goodreads. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz. Here are my...

Top 10 Favorite Books Read in 2015

1) The Prom Goer's Interstellar Excursion by Chris McCoy. Wonderful. Sensationally verbally clever. A kid just wants to go to prom and his date is abducted by aliens. What follows is a Douglas Adams-esque comic journey through space.

2) All Involved: A Novel of the 1992 LA Riots by Ryan Gattis. Excellent. Utterly gripping and masterfully written. A terrific book.



3) Trick Baby by Iceberg Slim. "The Sting" appears to rip off major elements of this book! Iceberg Slim was a supremely gifted writer with an amazing ear for dialog and description. It's like reading the best of Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Burroughs.



4) Transcendent Speculation on the Apparent Deliberateness of Fate in the Individual by Arthur Schopenhauer. This is just a long essay, but I found it tremendously insightful and it stuck with me. It delves deeply into the idea that people are the authors of their destinies far more than they often realize.


5) Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. Sensational. Truly moving. Experimental for a point - the second person narration creates the perfect feeling of dissociation.



6) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book lived up to the hype. Such strong, gripping, evocative writing. I keep thinking we're going to run out of stories to tell about World War II, but extraordinary tales keep appearing.


7) Jonathan Stroud - The Screaming Staircase, The Whispering Skull, The Hollow Boy, The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, Ptolemy's Gate, The Ring of Solomon. Just delightful. Really wonderful world-building. The Ring of Solomon might be a perfect book.



8) Bill Bryson - In a Sunburned Country, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, A Walk in the Woods, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, One Summer: America 1927, Neither Here Nor There, At Home. Charming wit and self-deprecation. A wonderful writer and fascinating on any topic.


9) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I reread from childhood. Extraordinarily great writing. The protagonist is just so loveable - excellently capturing childhood in the South.



10) The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis. Some moments of true profundity, some moments of great humor and wit, and some moments of unalloyed honesty about the true nature of relationships. Some really beautiful and bittersweet meditations on age, as well. I think this is Amis's parody of "the British novel." It's like an upside down E.M. Forster or Jane Austen.

Oscar Winners by Genre

Is it true that dramas are more likely to win best picture than other genres?  I decided to run the numbers.  It turns out, the trend is very true and growing stronger. Best Picture Nominees for 1927 - 2001

(data source: http://www.filmsite.org/bestpics2.html)

Dramas: 48% (click chart to enlarge)

Best Picture Winners for 1927 - 2001

(data source: http://www.filmsite.org/bestpics2.html)

Dramas: 39% (click chart to enlarge)

As you can see, dramas are heavily favored.  But interestingly, the trend grows even stronger in the past dozen years.

Best Picture Nominees (2002 - 2014)

Dramas: 62% (click chart to enlarge)

Best Picture Winners (2002 - 2014)

Dramas: 61% (click chart to enlarge)

They might as well call it the Academy Award for Best Drama.  Granted, in 2009, the Academy began nominating as many as 10 movies for best picture.  This allowed Sci Fi movies like District 9 and Animated movies like Up to gain nominations.

Academy Awards for Best Adapted and Best Original Screenplay are similarly weighted toward dramas.  Two-thirds of best picture winners also win either of the two best screenplay awards, so there is a strong correlation.

Best Adapted Screenplays (2002 - 2014)

Dramas: 46% (click chart to enlarge)

Best Original Screenplays (2002 - 2014)

Dramas: 54% (click chart to enlarge)

The upshot here is that if you're looking to win a writing Oscar, it's best to write a drama!

Are Romantic Comedies Profitable?

For years, the film industry has mourned the death of the romantic comedy. According to the Hollywood Reporter, romantic comedies don't travel well to cultures and languages overseas where Hollywood makes at least 75% of its revenue. Furthermore, romantic comedies, by definition, don't lend themselves to sequels. According to the Scoggins Report, there were only two comedy spec screenplay sales in Q1, 2015, neither of which was a romantic comedy.  Studios now rarely invest in rom-coms, as they are no longer considered a profitable genre.

But are these assumptions correct?

Are romantic comedies really an unprofitable genre? And do rom-coms fail overseas?

Looking at the data for all movies released theatrically from 2009 - 2015, romantic comedies are actually extremely profitable both domestically and overseas.  I scraped the available box office data from BoxOfficeMojo.com and crunched the numbers below.

In terms of gross profit, rom-coms handily outperformed my two control groups: action and sci fi.  Net profit is trickier to evaluate, and I will address that below.  But first, the overall numbers:

Average Budgets (2009 - 2015)

Rom-coms are significantly less expensive to produce than action or sci fi (click image to enlarge):

Average Worldwide Gross (2009 - 2015)

The average rom-com earns less revenue than the average action or sci fi movie:

Average Gross Profit (2009 - 2015)

"Gross profit" here is worldwide revenue-divided-by-budget.  For all genres, this number does not account for the exhibitor's split, or P&A (addressed below).

In box office gross, the average romantic comedy is more profitable than either action or sci fi.  In fact, the average rom-com grosses three times its budget.  This is because the rom com budget is typically half that of action movies and one third that of sci fi, so rom-coms are a much smaller financial outlay.  It is worth noting that while studios have avoided rom-coms over the past five years, rom-coms still show a healthy 200% profit margin in this time period, soundly outperforming both action and sci fi.

Studios are run by very, very smart people who wouldn't avoid rom-coms without good reason. So if rom-coms are clearly less expensive and more profitable than action or sci fi movies, why do studios avoid them?


According to Steven Soderbergh, the answer may lie in studio marketing budgets.  If you add a flat $60 million marketing budget to each genre, it radically changes the profit percentages.  In this hypothetical, rom-coms still earn a greater profit than action movies, but nowhere near as strong a profit as sci fi.

We have no transparency on studio marketing budgets, so it's difficult to know what studios spend on marketing and how effectively they spend it.  It seems reasonable to assume that p&a budgets should be dropping as the internet revolutionizes marketing, but marketing budgets continue to sky-rocket.

Consider the fact that 87% of Twitter users claim that tweets influence their movie choices. Yet studios continue to spend more than half their marketing budgets on TV spots in the face of mounting evidence that TV advertising is increasingly inefficient.

Transformers: Age of Extinction spent $100 million on domestic print-and-advertising alone.  Meanwhile, the average studio spends as much as half-a-billion on marketing annually.  With no transparency on these numbers, there can be no critical evaluation.  The MPAA stopped tracking studio marketing spends in 2007, and there is no public breakdown of marketing budgets per movie.

Studios now tend to avoid mid-budget movies of any genre, which cuts out rom-coms entirely. It may be that mini-majors and large financiers may find a way to fill this mid-budget gap in the film ecosystem, and fill the under-served demographic of movie-goers who love romantic comedies. As long as film companies learn to market rom-coms economically, this genre is demonstrably more cost efficient and profitable than action or sci fi.

The big takeaway from the numbers above is that rom-coms actually do perform profitably internationally.  But as studios focus their marketing dollars on fewer movies each year, they are under pressure to invest in gigantic movies that will help them reach billion dollar annual grosses.  Publicly traded companies need to show growing revenue year-over-year, and it is easier for a studio to reach billions in grosses by investing in $200 million movies than in small, yet profitable, romantic comedies.  Perhaps if studios were still privately held, their emphasis might be on greater profitability rather than increasing revenues.

Favorite Books of 2014

Previously: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 I read 100 books this year. Each year I blog about my favorite books, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.

What follows are the books I most enjoyed in 2014.

* Drive by Daniel H. Pink - A lot of great ideas about how to motivate creative problem solving in a business environment. Pink clarifies the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the workplace. Pink also makes a compelling case that creative employees work best when they are given autonomy, an opportunity for mastery of their craft, and a sense of purpose.

* The James Bond books by Ian Fleming - My favorites were "Moonraker," "To Russia With Love," "Live and Let Die," "Dr. No," "The Man With the Golden Gun," "Diamonds are Forever," "Thunderball," "In Her Majesty’s Secret Service," "The Spy Who Loved Me," "For Your Eyes Only," and "Casino Royale." I’ve seen all the Bond movies and think there is still opportunity to do justice to the depth and complexity of Bond’s character.

* Red Mars and Green Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson - Extremely well-researched and fun imagining of Mars colonization and terraforming. A bit like Asimov's Foundation series in that there is no clear protagonist - it’s really more about the ideas than the plot.

* American Sniper by Chris Kyle - Extremely compelling read; a complete page turner. A really fascinating portrait of an American hero.

* Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke - The first letter is brilliant - the idea that one should only become a writer if one sees no alternative. The next nine letters contain little to no specific advice on writing, but rather give increasingly vague ideas on love and loneliness. Nevertheless, some moments of extraordinary prose.

* The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar - Astonishingly clear prose reflecting an incredible mind. Caesar is a tireless worker, a brilliant politician and diplomat, and an incredibly successful general. Each strategy and ruse-de-guerre is breath-taking.  So little has changed in politics and warfare in 2000 years; a fascinating book.

* The Civil War by Julius Caesar - Just astonishingly good. Possibly the greatest military leader of all time. He fought in hundreds of military engagements and won all of them against staggering odds. When Bibulus uses his naval superiority to try to blockade Caesar and cut off all supply ships to Greece, Caesar blockades the entire Aegean so Bibulus has nowhere to land his fleet and dies of thirst and exposure. That is just the ultimate testament to Caesar's confidence and his extraordinary mind.

* Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury - I reread from my childhood. Astonishingly lyrical prose; like Jimi Hendrix lyrics - a jumble of language that works together to form perfectly evocative imagery.

* Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams - I reread for the third time. This book is just wonderful on every level.

* Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell - This year I read "Sharpe's Gold," "Sharpe's Havoc," "Sharpe's Eagle," "Waterloo," "Sharpe’s Sword," and "Sharpe’s Regiment." I love everything about these books. I particularly admire Cornwell's ability to craft insidious antagonists who are often more incompetent, racist, haughty, or immoral, than one-dimensionally evil. "Sharpe’s Regiment" may be my favorite of this bunch, though "Sharpe’s Eagle" is also fantastic.

* The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts by Issai Chozanshi - I find these old Japanese texts to be 10% brilliant and 90% inscrutable.  But I suppose that's the point of zen.

* The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris - An ingenious book that feels extremely current despite being published in 1967. Sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of its day, it evaluates humans from the perspective of a zoologist, and finds how - for all our sophisticated behaviors - we are just fancy chimpanzees.

* Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin & The Way to Wealth and other letters by Benjamin Franklin - I reread for the first time in ten years. Such a fantastic piece of work - just an astonishing human being of myriad accomplishments. There is so much to be learned from this book.

* Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson - Fascinating, astonishing, inspiring, and revolutionary. What an amazing man with an amazing life. A brilliant diplomat, from the Declaration of Independence, to the treaty with France that saved the American Revolution, to the British peace treaty ending the war, to the Constitution. Massive contributions to science - he coined the language of electricity with words like “current,” “conductor,” “positive,” “negative,” and “battery.” An incredible mind - so far ahead of his time - and so well accomplished in all things.

* Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - If you ask me, the Stoics are sanctimonious bores. Still, it was interesting to read the diary of an emperor who lived 2,000 years ago.

* Travels by Michael Crichton - Very readable and interesting. To a certain extent a biography, to another extent a travelogue, but mostly it is a man's quest for meaning. I didn't realize how successful Crichton was by age 30; that he was a Hollywood director and a Harvard Med School grad. I really just knew of him as a sci-fi best seller.

* Tell-All by Chuck Paluhniak - He's an astonishing talent. The first few chapters are mesmerizing. Ultimately, this book is not too heavy on plot, but it is a tour-de-force of style.

* Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins - Beautifully planned and structured, with a plausible heroine we root for from start to finish.

* Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth - Quite the page-turner. Hard to put down.

* Freeway Rick Ross by Rick Ross - The story of his rise from an illiterate high school dropout in South Central Los Angeles to becoming the largest crack cocaine dealer in LA. An interesting piece of history. Ultimately, the book is slightly disturbing in that Rick Ross comes across as unabashedly proud of what he accomplished as a crack dealer and really shows no remorse.

* Cyrus the Great (Cyruspaedia) by Xenophon - Cyrus was an extraordinary leader, conqueror, and humanitarian. This 2400 year-old book sets the stage for modern biography in that it seeks to instruct in moral character.

* Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters - Very fun. Lots of linguistic British cleverness and certainly a page turner.

* Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull - A very insightful book on how to manage a creative company like Pixar. Fascinating to gather the inside history of the most consistently successful movie studio in history, and how Pixar’s philosophy turned around Disney animation. Building that creatively supportive culture drew a lot from Silicon Valley ideas.

* Hombre by Elmore Leonard - Very well crafted with lots of cleverness and believable details woven into the prose.

* Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua - Permissive American parenting is a big issue that doesn't get talked about nearly enough. I understand why this book is controversial, but it prompts a discussion worth having.

* Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy - I've never encountered a writer with McCarthy's virtuosic powers of word choice, description, and simile; he utters a phrase and the picture springs into the mind's eye both familiar and fully formed. He is the greatest American author, the greatest living author, and possibly the greatest author, period. Better even than Nabokov in turning a perfect phrase.

* To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway - Say what you will, he is always interesting.

* Einstein by Walter Isaacson - A fast primer on Einstein.

* Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim - Utterly gorgeous prose writing, like Electric Kool-Aid acid test or William Boroughs. Very shocking material. It’s astonishing how all of the 1990's rap slang was alive and well in the 1930’s. There is nothing new under the sun. This book is far ahead of its time; delving into the Pimp's psychology, the prostitute's psychology, and the criminal mindset.

* The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton - Well researched and enjoyable.

* Dataclysm by Christian Rudder - Some interesting observations on the information age.

* Anabasis: The March Up Country by Xenophon - Fascinating tale of Xenophon’s 10,000 Hellenic mercenaries who were hoodwinked by Cyrus the Younger into fighting the King of Persia. The Greek army officers were assassinated by the Persians in a red wedding. So Xenophon, only a young warrior, rallied the Greek mercenaries to fight their way home through hostile territory. A fascinating read and a great adventure.

* Bossypants by Tina Fey - Very funny and with jokes in every sentence. And yet ultimately, this book is an important meditation on feminism.

* Selected Works by Cicero - I found this book tedious and interminable. Cicero himself I found insufferably vain, self-pitying, self-righteous, back-stabbing, and egotistical. Nearly every moral argument in this book fell flat for me. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to glimpse how surprisingly modern Roman society was, in its law, politics, and business.

* What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell - Gladwell is always fun and interesting.  Such a treat.

* Myth and Meaning by Claude Levi-Strauss - I am not clever enough to decide whether structural anthropology is blithering, unsubstantiated nonsense.  Still, I’ll read anything that discusses the mono myth.

* The Hard Way - A Jack Reacher Story by Lee Childs - Really terrifically smart and well-executed.

* Not Taco Bell Material by Adam Carolla - Really entertaining.

* Rumi Translation by Coleman Barks - Really wonderful modern poetry from a 13th century poet. I slowly savored this poetry collection over the past five or six years.

Age Difference Between Leading Actors and Actresses

Much has been made of the age gap between leading men and women.  Male romantic leads are often cast opposite much younger females.  And it is often difficult for actresses to find roles after age 40. While I suspect this gender gap has improved in the past 50 years, I decided to see if it is still alive and well.  I built a spider to scrape age data for the top 5,000 actors and actresses, as ranked by IMDb "starmeter."

For the 500 most popular actors and actresses on IMDb, the average actor is age 40.77 and the average actress is age 33.39.  Expanding to the top 5,000 actors and actresses on IMDb, the gap narrows.  Here the average actor is 44.74 and the average actress is 39.47.

Not surprisingly, star popularity is correlated to age.  The top 50 actors are the youngest, and possess the largest age gap between men and women.  For the top 5000 actors, the average age is older, and with a smaller age gap.  This chart shows how the age gap narrows as popularity decreases.

Another interesting phenomenon is that 60% of the top 500 most popular stars on IMDb are female.  This trend holds true for the top 100 most popular stars, as well as for the top  50.  Put another way, only 40% of the 500 most popular stars on IMDb are male.

However, when the sample size is stretched to include the 5,000 most popular stars, women equal men almost exactly (50.59% - 49.41%).

So why are women more likely to have high starmeter ratings?  Amazon's starmeter algorithm is a measure of what people are searching for.  A glance at the IMDb message boards suggests IMDb's userbase is disproportionately male.  So it could very well be that men search for their favorite actresses at a higher rate than women search for their favorite actors.  Thus, actresses may have a slight advantage in obtaining top "starmeter" rankings on IMDb.

Actor Height Myths

There is a long-standing belief in popular culture that actors are shorter than the national average.  I decided to put the theory to the test, creating a spider to scrape height data for the top 5,000 ranked actors and actresses on IMDb. It turns out: actors and actresses - by IMDb height - are two inches taller than the national average.

Heights of the Top 500 Actors and Actresses as Ranked by IMDb's "Starmeter."

The top 500 actors average 5 foot 11.7 inches versus the national male average of 5 foot 9.5 inches. The top 500 actresses average 5 foot 5.72 inches versus the national female average of 5 foot 4 inches.  The trend holds for the top 1,000 actors and actresses, as well as the top 5,000.

The easiest explanation is that both actors and actresses are finding ways to over-report their heights on IMDb on a massive scale. However, when I spot-checked a list of famously short actors and actresses, I found no discrepancies between IMDb's numbers, and celebrityheights.com. Granted, I'm not sure how to rigorously fact check 5,000 IMDb actor heights.

If actors are over-reporting their heights, it is worth noting they are no different from the rest of us.  OKCupid found their users report heights two inches above the national average.

The alternative explanation is that successful actors are simply taller.  This success/height correlation should make some sense given the data that taller people are smarter, earn more money, and are more respected by their peers, than short people (I am not a particularly tall person, so I write this without any bias).

The real upshot is, there is no data to support the idea that actors and actresses are shorter than average. In fact, the more popular an actor is, the more likely he is to be tall (actresses, on the other hand, retain a constant height regardless of popularity).

Methodology: Because certain minority groups may be underrepresented in the top 5,000 actors, the charts above compare actors to the average height for American Caucasians.

For my data set, I parsed out actors and actresses under 18, as they may not yet have achieved full height.

Books Read 2013

In 2007, I started blogging my favorite books of each year, an idea I got from the incomparable Aaron Swartz.  Aaron is a genius who tragically took his life this year.  He co-wrote RSS at age 14, co-founded Reddit his freshman year at Stanford, and was one of the most prolific Wikipedia editors in the world.  He was a crusader for freedom of information and is greatly missed by the Internet community. This year I read 75 books. I’ve tracked my books read since 2003, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books each year.

What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year.

*A Natural History of the Piano - Stuart Isacoff - Fun anecdotes and a surprisingly comprehensive history.

*The Master and Commander series - Patrick O'Brian - I finished this series of 20 novels this year.  They are my favorite historical fiction.  After so many books, you come to love the characters like old friends.  An astonishingly three-dimensional portrait of the Royal Navy and its characters.

*Psmith in the City - P.G. Wodehouse - Full of linguistic cleverness and sparkling dialog.

*Holes - Louis Sachar - Very fun read and cleverly tied together.

*An Essay on Criticism - Alexander Pope - Published in 1707.  This essay should be required reading for all critics.  So many notable quotes in this essay: "A little learning is a dangerous thing," "Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread," "To err is human, to forgive divine," and "What the weak mind with strongest bias rules, is pride the never failing vice of fools."

*River of Doubt - Candice Millard - Great adventure writing with amazing characters.

*Which Lie Did I Tell - William Goldman - Sequel to "Adventures in the Screen Trade."  In many ways, a very odd book.  But essential reading.

*The Big Short - Michael Lewis - A captivating and lucid window into the financial crisis, its causes and characters.

*To Hell and Back - Audie Murphy - Amazing tale of heroism and character.  Astonishing.

*Marine Sniper 93 Confirmed Kills - Charles Henderson - Some amazing scenes; particularly the duel where he shoots an enemy sniper in the eye through the enemy sniper's own scope.

*Writing Movies for Fun and Profit - Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon - Tremendously funny, useful, and therapeutic.  I read several screenwriting books this year that I did not find particularly useful.  It is rare to find a screenwriting book written by actual working screenwriters, full of relevant and honest advice about the business of screenwriting.

*Hagakure - The Book of the Samurai - Yamamoto Tsunetomo - (Translated by William Scott Wilson) - A lot of useful philosophy to be garnered from this book.  A samurai makes every decision within the space of seven breaths.  And a samurai always dies facing the enemy.

*You Can Be a Stock Market Genius - Joel Greenblatt - Despite the cheesy title, this is a brilliant book that marries the fundamental analysis of Peter Lynch and Benjamin Graham with the strategy and timing of the derivatives market.

*The Man Who Heard Voices - Michael Bamberger - Fascinating tale of M. Night Shyamalan making "Lady in the Water."  It is both hagiography and cautionary tale.  Nina Jacobson, then at Disney, comes off as a genius.

*The Elements of Style - William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White - Wonderful.  I grew up thinking grammar was the mindless passion of pedants.  But really the point of grammar is clear and effective writing.

*Sleepless in Hollywood - Lynda Obst - An interesting window into the challenges of being a producer now that studios are changing their business models.

*Zen in the Art of Archery - Eugen Herrigel - I reread this as I became increasingly interested in Samurai philosophy this year.  Zen and mastery of one's craft are inextricably tied.

*The Life-Giving Sword - Yagyu Munenori - The best part of the book is the preface giving a sense of Japanese feudal history. What a fascinating period.  The book itself is incredibly arcane, obfuscated with Zen koans, but not without a certain sense of poetry.

*The Battle of Brazil - Jack Matthews - Fascinating account of Terry Gilliam's somewhat pyrrhic victory over Sid Sheinberg and Universal in releasing his version of Brazil.

*Richard III - William Shakespeare - Kind of a propaganda piece for the Tudors at the expense of the Plantangenets.  I liked the first speech, and a few speeches in Act V.  It picks up around Act IV.  It's unclear why Richard is so clever in ascending to power and so immediately unclever once he attains power.  Although I suppose it's all motivated by his general misanthropy.  In this new Golden Age of television, filled with anti-heroes, it is worthwhile to revisit one of the original anti-heroes of literature.

*The Unfettered Mind - Takuan Soho - The Zen priest who advised Yagyu Munenori and even met Miyamoto Musashi, offers his ideas on the relationship between zen and swordsmanship.

*Conversations with Wilder - Cameron Crowe and Billy Wilder - Wilder's wit and charm - even as a 91 year old - shine through.  The book inspires a great nostalgia for the greatest generation and the glamour of the golden age of Hollywood.

*Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish - David Rakoff - A rhyming novel of stories of characters who connect across time; I really enjoyed page 94.

*Sharpe's Tiger - Bernard Cornwell - I read several of the Richard Sharpe novels this year.  So far, "Sharpe's Rifles" is my favorite.  In Sharpe's Tiger, Sergeant Hakeswell is one of the most loathesome antagonists I've encountered in literature.

*Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan - The subject matter is such a guilty pleasure.  Not literature and yet very satisfying.  Somebody needed to write this book.

*The Green Felt Jungle - Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris - A somewhat dated book cataloguing Vegas mafia corruption in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.  Informative and very much of its time.

*Difficult Men - Brett Martin - A very enjoyable read about the show runners of the new Golden Age of television.  Martin's thesis is that the same conditions that created wonderful 70s film - execs taking risks and getting out of the way of writers - is exactly what happened to create the cable television revolution.  Great show runners like Matthew Weiner and David Chase took zero studio notes and maintained complete creative control.  And thus created ground-breaking television.

*The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini - Well done; an emotional book.

*A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy O'Toole - Some very colorful moments.

*The Summer of Katya - Trevanian - Very well written.  Somewhat different from his spy novels.

*Goldfinger - Ian Fleming - Fun and full of ideas.  Dated in terms of its sexism, ethnocentrism, and post-war nihilism.  But an extremely entertaining read.

"95% of Income Gains to the Top 1%" is a Misleading Statistic

"Obama admits 95% of income gains go to top 1%."

- CNN, September 15, 2013.

Chances are you've seen articles like this pop up in your Facebook news feed, along with angry commenters calling for revolution and storming the Bastille. The statistic conjures images of Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah laughing maniacally as they mug the poor. But take hope...

The 95% statistic is wildly misleading.

And if you put down your pitchforks and torches for a minute, I'll explain the major fallacies behind this statistic.

First, Some Background...

"During the 1980s, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans got 70 percent of the income gains." - Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Putting People First, 1992.

This statistic helped Clinton beat Bush Sr. in the 1992 election (see page 77 of Alan Reynold's "Income and Wealth" for a thorough smackdown of this erroneous statistic). Awkwardly for Clinton, those same one-percenters made 45% of income gains throughout Clinton's tenure[1].

Bush Jr.'s presidency saw income gains continue to accrue to the nation's richest. Dubyah raised this 1% statistic in the run-up to the Obama-McCain presidential election [2].  In fact, this handy 1% statistic comes up in every election cycle. It even birthed the ninety-nine percent political movement in 2011.

So who are these pesky one-percenters?

The Non-Enduring Class Fallacy

The term "one-percenter" is a non-enduring class fallacy. There is no static class of individuals earning top 1% income gains year-over-year.

In fact, the smaller the percentage we choose, the larger the inaccuracy. Even if we make statements about 100% of Americans, we are not talking about the same individuals each year. People are born, die, or move away. Marilyn vos Savant, who holds a Guinness record for the highest recorded I.Q., made this point in her 1996 book "The Power of Logical Thinking." Berkeley produced the 1% study that currently has Obama in such hot water. But when the IRS and CBO present Berkeley with their raw income data, Berkeley does not get individual names of income gainers. There is no way to track who is in the 1% year-over-year.

So who are those 3.13 million people in this year's top 1%? Are they all palm-rubbing Goldman Sachs partners in $3,000 suits?

Probably not.

And it's not all athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs either.

Imagine a man selling the family farm to pay medical bills. Or an exonerated convict winning a legal judgement. Or a struggling screenwriter selling a script after a decade of waiting tables. The point is we don't know. This year they may be one-percenters. Next year they may be ninety-nine percenters.

So who's making all the money?

Only 63% of Americans are in the workforce. So roughly half the population makes all the money.

Also consider that people at the peak of their careers, age 54 - 64, have the highest income. Hey wait, 12% of the population is making most of the money! That's unfair! Oh wait, no. This makes total sense.

But let's get to the bigger fallacies...

Decile Analysis is Wildly Misleading

The Berkeley study cites decile analysis, which economists use to study income gains. The problem is, decile analysis can be used to say pretty much anything.

To understand why decile analysis is so clunky, consider the ten fictional households of Stokesville:


Let's say the household earner in Decile 9 launches her singing career. She signs a $200,000 recording contract! This poor Decile just made a lot of money, right?


The richest decile did...


...Because our singer jumped to the richest decile.

So the highest decile made a 100% income gain. And the poorest decile made no income gain whatsoever.

And now a journalist can claim the highest income decile made a 100% income gain at the expense of the poor.

Darn those wealthy people for making all the money!


But this is wildly misleading!

Yes. And this is the methodology of the Berkeley study and all other income distribution studies.

And it gets much, much crazier. Consider the following scenario in Stokesville:   Everyone in Stokesville receives a 100% raise. Plus ten new jobs are created for the bottom five deciles!   Everyone wins, right?   Wrong again. According to decile analysis, the top half of Stokesville received 100% of the income gains while the bottom half received zero percent!

And despite getting equal raises, the top decile's income grew 95%.  More than any other decile.  Gains always accrue to the top decile.

But there are more fallacies to Berkeley's one percent study...

The Biased Sample Fallacy

Why does the Berkeley study only choose the time period of 2009 - 2012? According to their own numbers, the top 1% took 75% of the income losses during the recession of 2007 - 2009. So what are the cumulative numbers from 2007 - 2012? Did the wealthiest 1% only earn 20% of the income gains over that full period? Suddenly this news headline is a lot less sexy.

The wealthiest suffer more when the stock market crashes (2007 - 2009) and gain more when the stock market rises (2009 - 2012). The Dow Jones rose nearly 60% from 2009 - 2012 (see chart). Berkeley's choice to only report the income gains of one-percenters during a massive stock market run seems like a biased sample.

And now we get to the main point...

The Median-Mode Fallacy

Consider the following problem:

1) 9 people in Stokesville are 5 feet tall 2) 1 person in Stokesville is 6 feet tall

Therefore, the "average" height in Stokesville is 5 foot 1.

So 90% of the population is below average?

Now imagine a person moves to Stokesville who is 1 million feet tall. Suddenly, everyone is 100,000 feet below average. This is what happens when you introduce a billionaire into an economy…

The Billionaire Dilemma Imagine Stokesville has a total population of 1,000 millionaires. Plus one Warren Buffett (net worth ~ $60 Billion).

The stock market rises 10%. The 1,000 millionaires made $100,000,000! A good year!

But Warren Buffett made $6 Billion. So 98% of the income gains went to the top .001%.

Note the zero-sum fallacy. Everyone in Stokesville is wealthy. Everyone's net worth increased 10%. But a politician can argue that Stokesville is economically unhealthy because the uber-rich are taking 98% of the pie. Gains in the wealthy do not equal suffering in the poor.

Billions and billions…

Adding billionaire outliers to an economy kills income gain analysis. And we are fortunate to live in a country with 442 billionaires and counting. In 2007, before the financial crisis, America boasted 16,600,000 millionaires. That's 5.3% of the U.S. population. In 2007, an American had a one-in-twenty chance of being a millionaire. Even after the financial crisis, America has more millionaires than any other country.

As long as we have great innovators like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page, then we are going to have billionaires. This is great news. And yes, it will throw off our income gain statistics. It will destroy normal distribution curves and create wonky income studies. But the successes of the wealthy do not necessarily come at the expense of the poor.

Books Read in 2012

I read 50 books this year, nine fewer than last year. I’ve been tracking my books read since 2003, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books. What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year. The Sicilian - Mario Puzo He is fantastic at what he does. I thought the downbeat ending is what makes this mafia story less popular than The Godfather.  But very enjoyable escapist entertainment.

Moonwalking With Einstein - Joshua Foer Fun, well-written, and interesting.

Bambi vs. Godzilla - David Mamet He makes arcane arguments, quotes in French, and is constantly cynical.  But I enjoyed this fast, fun read.

Three Uses of the Knife - David Mamet His book, "On Directing Film" made a tremendous impression on me.

The Mailroom - Compiled by David Rensin Fascinating.  A must-read for anyone working in entertainment.  Historically interesting how abusively un-PC the culture in Hollywood was in the 80's and 90's.  I find myself mentally referencing this book constantly.

Right Ho, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse So brilliant.  Just laugh-out-loud funny.  I've read this book before.  Wodehouse is a genius like no other.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime - P.G. Wodehouse Again, his usual linguistic brilliance.

Pirate Latitudes - Michael Crichton Beginning is brilliant, well-researched, and fun.  Later on it gets a bit silly.  This book is published posthumously, so arguably it's not Crichton's fault the story falls off toward the end.

Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling Yes, I finally read the series this year.  Each book is better than the last.  What wonderfully imaginative world-building.  A tremendous accomplishment.  Fantastic, transcendent work.

Wigfield - Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinillo, Stephen Colbert At points as verbally brilliant as P.G. Wodehouse and yet not really a captivating tale as there is no likable protagonist.  Still, very, very clever.

Once a Pilgrim - Will Scully Wow, could not put this book down. One man holds off 1,000 looting, pillaging rebels in the '97 Sierra Leone coup. True story.

Master and Commander - Patrick O'Brian Incredibly well-researched with swash-buckling action sequences.  I'm now on the 7th book in this series and am loving every moment.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom - Baltasar Gracian Some good nuggets of 18th century wisdom.

Many Lives, Many Masters - Brian Weiss, M.D. A fun read; totally not peer-reviewed science.

Easy Riders and Raging Bulls - Peter Biskind Fascinating read about how and why studio movies made incredible movies from 1970 - 1980. Very illuminating.  I mentally reference this book constantly.

Tchaikovsky - Letters to his Family So good.

Where Angels Fear to Tread - E.M. Forster Enjoyed it much more than A Passage to India; lots of fun insight into people and places and behavior.

Whores for Gloria - William T. Vollman Great moments of poetry and innovation; ultimately, the ending left me hanging.

Desperate Characters - Paula Fox Really skilled craftsmanship, brimming with truth and insight.  Not a ton of forward plot here, but just excellently observed - like a good Mad Men vignette.  Extremely Franzen-esque in its honesty.

Agincourt - Bernard Cornwell Really fun and well researched.  A clever way to follow a long bowman through the events leading up to and including the Battle of Agincourt.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy Insightful and courageous but not my favorite Tolstoy.  I also read Prisoner of the Caucuses and that's a bit more fun.

The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga A good read; really informative about the state of India and a page turner from an innovative new writer.

Dark Pastoral - Jessica Hutchins A collection of odd po-mo short stories; she has a gift.

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl On surviving the Holocaust - very powerful book and filled with ideas on the meaning of life that resonate and inspire.

Some Screenplays I really enjoyed this year:  "White House Down" by James Vanderbilt; just dynamite execution.  "St. Vincent de Van Nuys" by Ted Melfi - a tear-jerker for sure.  "Django Unchained" by Quentin Tarantino - what a brilliant idea - challenging and fun.

Birthday Statistics

Each spring I'm hit by a deluge of birthdays to attend.  The deluge tapers off in July.  This made me curious: are my friends more likely to have spring birthdays?  I did some digging and found the answer: overwhelmingly, yes. First, the control group.  Here are average US birthdays by month (2009 census):

As one would expect, US birthdays average 8.33% per month (as 100% divided by 12 months = 8.33%).  Now, below are my friends' birthdays by month:

Fully 25% of my friends are born in May and June.  And three of my friends share my exact birthday, June 18th.  When you consider the math of the Birthday Problem, this seems unlikely.  What are the odds of four individuals in a set of 167 sharing the exact same birthday?

By way of control group, only two of my other 167 friends share the same birthday with each other.


To obtain the data above, I took my total set of Facebook friends and parsed 180 that I feel a genuine connection with (as many Facebook friends are acquaintances).  Of 180 friendships, I was able to scrape birthday data for 176 of them.  Creating the chart above.


Why am I nearly twice as likely to have a friend born in the spring than the summer?  Why am I nearly three times as likely to have a friend born in June as a friend born in January?

Is this random chance or do other people notice trends among their friends as well?


Turns out, science has spotted many birthday correlations, none of which are properly understood.  For instance, children with autism are 16% more likely to be born in winter months. 1 Spring babies are at a 17% higher risk of suicide.2 A mother's exposure to sunlight (read: vitamin D levels) during gestation may be a significant factor in fetal development. For instance, both MS and Schizophrenia are strongly correlated to babies who came to term during winter months, or in northern latitudes with lower levels of sunlight.1 2 If vitamin D can have such a marked effect on fetal health and development, is it possible that brain and personality may be effected as well? Since photoperiodism can effect the brain chemistry of adults (fully 10% of Alaskans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder), can daylight itself be a factor?

Other bizarre birthday statistics:

* US teen mothers are more likely to give birth in January than any other month 3 * February babies have a higher likelihood of narcolepsy 4 * Pilots are more likely to be born in March 4 * People with autumn birthdays have the longest lifespans; spring birthdays have the shortest. A person born in October will outlive a person born in March by an average of 215 days.4 * June and July babies consistently have the highest likelihood of short-sightedness4 *September babies get the best grades and test scores in school.4


I think astrology is malarkey. But is it possible that birth month affects personality? Is my statistical sample of 167 friends simply too small to be meaningful? It is interesting to me that among my very best friends, spring babies are still over-represented, with a distribution mirroring the chart above. Possibly science will begin to formulate explanations for the statistical correlations between birth date and personality, health, and aptitude.

Friendship Equation

Work is preventing me from spending enough time with friends lately.  Rather than deal with this problem head on, I got curious about defining the relationship between friendship and time and came up with the following formula for calculating Friendship Value:

This assumes that Friendship Value = [1. Discounted perceived value of past interactions] + [2. perceived value of current interactions] + [3. discounted perceived value of future interactions]. Working backwards:

3. "Discounted Perceived Value of Future Interactions" can be expressed as the summation of all future interactions (t) years from the present (t=0) where "i" = the discount rate at which the net present value of the opportunity costs of a friendship equals the net present value of the benefits of the friendship:

Or, for those that want to graph friendship as a continuous rate (where d=discount rate and λ = log(1+i) ), by the integration:

2. "Perceived Value of Current Friendship Interaction" may be expressed as:

1. "Discounted Perceived Value of all Past Interactions" may be expressed as:

And thus, total Friendship Value can be expressed as =

By this we see that friendship is in a constant state of entropy, buoyed only by the value of our current interactions and the perceived value of our future interactions.  Without the hope of future interactions, the value of a friendship will decline asymptotally, approaching but never reaching zero.

If the value of perceived future interaction declines, it affects the net present value of the friendship.  So if I am going to be busy for the next six months, this dramatically affects the current value of my friendship.

We can calculate the relationship between time and friendship using an inverse square law:

Where FV1 = The Friendship value of a friend, FV2 = The Friendship value of me, and t = the amount of time spent apart.

By this equation, as the net present perceived value of either or both friends decreases, the force of attraction between the friends drops proportionately. But when time is spent apart, the overall value of the friendship drops exponentially.

Thus, friendship is a function of time.  And if I value friends, logic compels me to leave work alone at some point to spend some time with them. I probably need to get out more.

Great Books I Read in 2011

I read 59 books this year, one more than last year. I've been tracking my books read since 2004, always with the goal of reading at least 50 books. What follows are the books I most enjoyed this year. Jaw Breaker - Gary Berntsen - a really fascinating and fun tell-all by the lead CIA operative in Afghanistan.

John Adams - David McCoullough - An incredible American story and deeply inspiring.

True Grit - Charles Portis - Extremely fun although the ending didn't sit very well.

Making Movies - Sidney Lumet - Worthwhile.

Islands in the Stream - Hemmingway - Strong and innovative writing; humorous dialog and fun adventure.

Carry On, Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse - Always a complete delight - Wodehouse is pure genius.

The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck - Really engaging story told with straight-forward powerful language; she's fluent in Chinese and English so her language seems to reflect Chinese syntax and values.

Daydreaming and the Creative Writer - Sigmund Freud - more of an essay but makes great points equating the writing process to daydreaming, wish fulfillment, and the hero as the ego of the writer.

The Zombie Survival Guide - Max Brooks - In my opinion, this is the book that originated the current zombie fad in popular culture.

The Future of an Illusion - Sigmund Freud - Pretty astonishing work; he rather bravely asserts that religion and God are an illusion resulting from psychoanalytic needs and that the progress of humanity - from a standpoint of psychological maturity - rests in recognizing this illusion and embracing science.

Blink - Malcolm Gladwell - His stories and studies are fascinating and fun - always a pleasure.

Shooting to Kill - Christine Vachon - A specific and useful description of what an indy New York film producer does to actually produce a movie.

Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast For Crows, A Dance With Dragons - George R. R. Martin - Extraordinary plotting and world building; brutal on the protagonists and therefore the reader. But an overwhelming literary accomplishment.

Tess of the D'Ubervilles - Thomas Hardy - Compelling and innovative in its day.

The Naked Sun, Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire - Isaac Asimov - Fun, clever, and wonderfully plotted.

Island - Aldous Huxley - Lots of interesting ideas, but absolutely no plot whatsoever.

A House Boat on the Styx - John Kendrick Bangs - A Bangsian fantasy comprised of compelling sketches.

Cities of the Plain - Cormac McCarthy - So much skilled dialog and his usual fantastic writing sense.

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston - Some fascinating writing - rich and colorful description and delightful dialog.

Unfamiliar Fishes - Sarah Vowel - Always enjoy her voice and point of view.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee - Dee Brown - devastatingly good. Every American should read it - astonishing stories.

The Secret History - Donna Tartt - some really good prose writing.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War - Leonard Richards - Pretty interesting how everyone in congress in the 1800's was packing guns and knives and dueling and brawling at every political debate.

Les Fleurs du Mal - Charles Baudelaire - Some of the poems are sensational; finding profound and beautiful ways to express new ideas on new topics, and influencing every poet who came after.

Michael Strogoff - Jules Vernes - He really created the art of modern adventure story-structure.

Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut - Interesting.

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown - When it comes to plot, he's the best.