Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review – Micro Cogeneration

Micro Cogeneration: Towards Decentralized Energy Systems
by Martin Pehnt, Martin Cames, Corinna Fischer, Barbara Praetorius, Lambert Schneider, Katja Schumacher, and Jan-Peter Vob, 2006

This book describes efforts to improve the adoption of small-scale cogeneration, or combined heat and power plants. I wrote a bit about CHP plants here.

This book is written for the German market, but describes the situation in the US, Europe, and Japan as well.

I didn’t read the whole book, as many of the chapters were overly technical for my interest-level. I’m mostly interested in the economic situation of CHP plants. Here are the chapters I read:
2. Dynamics of Socio-Technical Change: Micro Cogeneration in Energy System Transformation Scenarios
3. The Future Heating Market and the Potential for Micro Cogeneration
4. Economics of Micro Cogeneration
9. Embedding Micro Cogeneration in the Energy Supply System
11. Micro Cogeneration in North America
15. Summary and Conclusions

I think this quote sums up the difficulty of embracing decentralized CHP well:

Micro cogeneration… faces a selection environment that is geared towards central generation and long-distance transmission of electricity combined with separate heat production. The existing “regime” of energy provision may indeed represent a fundamental barrier for the widespread application of micro cogeneration technology, because it more or less subtly works towards the preservation of the existing structure: to which vested interests, actor networks, traditions, established mind sets, sunk costs, and more are attached.

My CHP project is looking at economic situations and policy levers in which utility ownership of CHP will be more favored.

Book Review – And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None
by Agatha Christie, 1939

Maria and I read Murder on the Orient Express previously and liked Agatha Christie’s storytelling. This one is a bit more haunting, but still good. There are extensive back-stories of the characters at the beginning of the book. I tried to look up these back-stories online as a reminder, but accidentally saw some spoilers. I tried not to read them, but I thought that I saw who the murderer was. Despite this, the story is so deceptive that I wasn’t really sure what was happening until the last pages of the book. Recommended.

Book Review – The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg, 2012

Good book about diagnosing and changing your bad habit and developing good habits. Most of what we do is habitual and done without thought. We get into a cycle where a cue triggers a routine in order to get some reward. If you have a list of websites you traverse whenever you start browsing the internet, you know this cycle. In order to fix bad habits or develop good habits, we need to understand the components of the cycle and learn how to be proactive in shaping them.

This book starts with personal habits and moves to organizational habits, with multiple examples from business. To get a flavor of the book, check out this appendix which walks through changing a single habit of the author: going to the cafeteria at work to get a cookie each afternoon.

Book Review – Small-Scale Cogeneration Handbook

Small-Scale Cogeneration Handbook, 2nd edition
by Bernard Kolanowski, 2003

My second energy paper is about cogeneration, also called combined heat and power (CHP). Cogen plants burn fuel for electricity and also put the waste heat to work. The waste heat can be used for space or water heating, for industrial processes, or for air conditioning (via a heat-exchange setup). This book covers the basics for someone interested in putting a cogen plant to work. Common uses of cogen are for manufacturing processes, hospitals, hotels, and universities. Basically, anyone who has a large and stable heating load (in addition to their electric load) could be a candidate for CHP. Electrical output of the systems range from dozens of kilowatts to hundreds of megawatts. About 8% of the U.S. electricity generation comes from CHP plants.

For me, interested in modeling cogen/CHP plants instead of buying one, the most useful parts of this book are where it discusses PURPA and subsequent U.S. regulation (Chapter 3) as well as where it discusses financing and contracting (Chapter 11). As this edition was written in 2003, some of the discussions of the deregulation of electrical systems and incentives for green energy are out of date, but I’m sure the newer version is more current.

Book Review – Short Stories by Anton Chekhov

Stephen Fry Presents a Selection of Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories
by Anton Chekhov, read by Stephen Fry

Russia must not have been a very happy place in Chekhov’s time (1860-1904). These stories might just leave you a little depressed. Stephen Fry reading them makes them a little better, but the audiobook was a little funky in its timing – no pauses between the end of one story and start of the next.

Unless you’re a Russian scholar or really appreciate dark humor, you can probably skip this one.

Book Review – Superintelligence

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies
by Nick Bostrom, 2014

When the book chooses to include a jacket blurb that says “A damn hard read” by the Sunday Telegraph, you know they’re not screwing around. Definitely reads like a lengthy academic paper (260 main text pages). Covers the paths to a machine intelligence takeoff and possible efforts to control or shape such a future. Basically, a super intelligent machine or being will have motivations and capabilities that are hard to control, and if we don’t tackle the control problem before the intelligence takes off, we’re all doomed.

I like the closing paragraphs:

Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb. Such is the mismatch between the power of our plaything and the immaturity of our conduct. Superintelligence is a challenge for which we are not ready now and will not be ready for a long time. We have little idea when the detonation will occur, though if we hold the device to our ear we can hear a faint ticking sound.

For a child with an undetonated bomb in its hands, a sesible thing to do would be to put it down gently, quickly back out the room, and contact the nearest adult. Yet what we have here is not one child but many, each with access to an independent trigger mechanism. The chances that we will all find the sese to put down the dangerous stuff seem almost negligible. Some little idiot is bound to press the ignite button just to see what happens.

Nor can we attain safety by running away, for the blast of an intelligence explosion would bring down the entire firmament. Nor is there a grown-up in sight.

In this situation, any felling of gee-wiz exhilaration would be out of place. Consternation and fear would be closer to the mark; but the most appropriate attitude may be a bitter determination to be as competent as we can, much as if we were preparing for a difficult exam that will either realize our dreams or obliterate them.

This is not a prescription of fanaticism. The intelligence explosion might still be many decades off in the future. moreover, the challenge we face is, in part, to hold on to our humanity: to maintain our groundedness, common sense, and good-humored decency even in the teeth of this most unnatural and inhuman problem. We need to bring all our human resourcefulness to bear on its solution.

Yet let us not lose track of what is globally significant. Through the fog of everyday trivialities, we can perceive – if but dimly – the essential task of our age. In this book, we have attempted to discern a little more feature in what is otherwise still a relatively amorphous and negatively defined vision – one that presents as our principal moral priority (at least from an impersonal and secular perspective) the reduction of existential risk and the attainment of a civilizational trajectory that leads to a compassionate and jubilant use of humanity’s cosmic endowment.

Book Review – Amusing Ourselves to Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
by Neil Postman, 1985

Written over thirty years ago, this diatribe rallies one against the tyranny of television. Public discourse becomes entertainment instead of rigorous debate when a culture moves from the printed word to the picture box. I do feel that much of what is said is true, and it’s even more true nowadays with the internet around to amuse us to death. I read Technopoly in a seminar in college and this pairs nicely. Here are two quotes from the last chapter that seem especially prescient. In the first, he compares the dystopias of George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), both of which you should read.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has now, in the latter half of the twentieth, reached a perverse maturity in America’s consuming love-affair with television. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions. By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.

While he may miss on the importance of the computer, he does hit on the promise and letdown of Big Data:

Although I believe the computer to be a vastly overrated technology, I mention it here because, clearly, Americans have accorded it their customary mindless inattention; which means they will use it as they are told, without a whimper. Thus, a central thesis of computer technology—that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data—will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.

It is somewhat amusing that I read this book through an electronic medium (book on tape) instead of in book form.

Book Review – Get Rich with Dividends

Get Rich with Dividends: A Proven System for Earning Double-Digit Returns
by Marc Lichtenfeld, 2012

A starter guide to the dividend growth movement. I’ve already been reading a few blogs on dividend growth (Sure Dividend is my favorite), and this book confirms the thoughts I’m reading elsewhere. I’m hoping that my (currently) relatively modest holdings with grow with the power of dividend growth over the years. Companies that have a decent dividend yield with a high dividend growth rate and sustainable payout ratio are good candidates for a long term buy-and-hold portfolio. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Walmart, and Coca Cola are good options for such portfolios. This book suggests a higher starting yield (4.7% or more) than I’m used to, but I think many stocks with 2-4% starting yields are still good. I’m open to investment discussions and information sharing, if anyone is interested.

Book Review – Ahead of the Curve

Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution
by Brian Kenny, 2016

We (Maria and I) met Brian Kenny at the 2013 SABR Analytics conference. He was the keynote speaker, and advocated such things at knuckleball academies (to train knuckleball pitchers), bullpenning (using your bullpen more effectively and moving away from the dominance of the starting pitcher), and a information-saavy managerial staff to replace intuitive managers. He’s incredibly well-spoken and brings that to his work on ESPN and MLB Network, and now to his book.

Kill the win. Kill the save. Don’t sign big-money free agents. All are topics in this book, but I think the overwhelming theme is that we need to halt the tyranny of backward-thinking sports media that constantly attacks and belittles analytical thinking. Great book.

Pairs well with Moneyball, obviously (my reading of that one pre-dates when I was writing book reviews for my website). Also pairs well with Big Data Baseball, Mathletics, How to Measure Anything, and Thinking, Fast and Slow.