Books Read in the First Half of 2015

This post is a few months late compared to my usual semi-annual book review schedule. Just as a reminder, my scale is from one to five, with five being the best, and the last review being my top pick as the best book I’ve read in the past half-a-year.

Two Stars:

The Meaning of Human Existence by E.O. Wilson: When you name your book “The Meaning of Human Existence”, you’re setting a high bar from the get-go. The primary problem is that the majority of the book does not address the question in the title. Instead, Wilson discusses two topics: a brief history of evolutionary biology research, and the relationship between science and the humanities. Worthwhile topics, sure, but not what readers would expect from the title. He doesn’t answer the question posed from the start except with this off-hand line near in the conclusion: “What is the meaning of human existence? I’ve suggested that it is the epic of the species…it is also what we will choose to become.” If you finish this book, you won’t have learned much about why we are here.

Three Stars:

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe: This first book from the creator of nerd-to-mainstream webcomic XKCD is a collection of responses to his webcomic reader emails. Chapters are structured as Q&As, with the answers comprising both essay explanations of the science of how the hypothetical situations would work and cartoons visualizing said unrealistic scenarios. If you’re a fan of XKCD or hypothetical thought experiments, this is worth the couple hours it takes to read.

The Circle by Dave Eggers: The obvious comparison, made by other reviewers, is to Huxley’s “Brave New World”. This is the first book by Eggers I’ve read, although multiple friends swear by his other works. Eggers does not seem to be nearly as strong a writer as Huxley (as measured by creative use of the English language and Huxley’s ability to say more with fewer words). However, what “The Circle” lacks in grandiosity and profundity, it makes up for being relatability. He’s written a compelling story about a web company that takes over the world economically and politically, as told from the perspective of one of its employees. Nearly all of the technology mentioned in the book exists today, which is the most chilling part. “The Circle” does a solid job of demonstrating the potential horrors of modern technology to a millennial reader.

Four Stars:

The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means by George Soros: This is billionaire investor George Soros’s thoughts on the causes of and solutions to the 2008 financial crisis. Like many of his books, a third of the book is devoted to reiterating the philosophical theory of “reflexivity” and its application to economics. The second third reviews the recent financial crisis, which doesn’t contain much material different from other sources except for Soros’s investing strategies amidst the events of 2008. The book then ends with his prescriptions for fixing the global economy: central bankers should be worried about asset bubbles along with the money supply, complex financial securities should be standardized and forced to go through clearing houses with margin requirements, and the housing bubble should be addressed by keeping people in their homes and adjusting bankruptcy proceedings. While this book walks a lot of previously covered ground, the content is still thoughtful enough that any reader, whether familiar or unfamiliar with Soros, will take something away from it.

Bad Paper: Inside the Secret World of Debt Collectors by Jake Halpern: I have a soft spot for stories from the financial underworld, and Jake Halpern’s investigative work into the underbelly of debt collection. He managed to submerge himself into the side of everyday finance most individuals don’t think about but are linked to: if you don’t pay off a credit card bill, where does that debt go? Who takes the loss? Halpern has found the answer (and reveals it in balanced thrilling yet sobering fashion) in the debt secondary markets. This business, largely trafficked through Buffalo, New York, is managed by a combination of high class bankers and lower-class ex-convicts trying to make a living by tracking down individuals who miss their phone bills. Like Martin Scorsese, Halpern makes mobsters sympathetic and complex-to-the-layman financial deals understandable.

Good Guys and Bad Guys by Joe Nocera: New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera published a compilation of his articles over the past three decades that were specifically memoirs or interviews with high-profile business leaders, especially those with distinct public images. Warren Buffett, Michael Milken, and the Enron crew all make appearances. Nocera’s writing is most intriguing when trying to highlight the shades of grey between what we think of as good and evil (was Milken a scapegoat for an entire industry that was misbehaving? Can good businesses be bankrupted by predatory lawyers?) The collection is bookended by interviews, done two decades apart, with oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, whose personal life and career have had as many ups and downs as the economy.

The Money Culture by Michael Lewis: This is another collection of articles from a business journalist. Famed financial journalist Michael Lewis focuses on the mid-80s to mid-90s era of financial globalization. Broken up into three sections (United States, Europe, and Asia) with pieces Lewis wrote for The New York Times, New Republic, Washington Post, and others, Lewis guides us through the laughable idiocy of the financial elite (or what would be comically stupid if it didn’t pay so well) as they almost destroyed venerable companies such as Macy’s, American Express, Nabisco, and the mortgage lenders in the post-leveraged buyout era. When they had taken over and destroyed what they reasonably could in America, the bankers moved to Japan to run the same playbook, and there too was Michael Lewis to share with the masses with his sense of sarcasm and understandable explanations of financial chicanery. This is definitely a quick, worthwhile read for those who want to understand a not-so-distant but not-so-recent time in the history of big, bad business.

Dead Companies Walking by Scott Fearon and Jesse Powell: “Short selling” (making money on the decline of stock) is a unique, difficult, and controversial art. Hedge fund manager Scott Fearon has been making these contrarian bets for decades and has assembled a guidebook for identifying these opportunities. As Fearon points out, most business failures aren’t from Enron-like fraud, but from changing technologies, competitive landscape, or simple mismanagement. He takes examples from company collapses he’s seen during his finance career and explains how to identify broken businesses before bankruptcy sets in. Even for non-financially literate readers, the lessons on how to think about what works and what doesn’t in business teaches a perspective of skepticism that is lacking in a lot of people.

Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Taleb: I read most of his other books before coming back to Fooled By Randomness. This makes it tricky to review because each of his successive books builds intellectually from the predecessors. As the title suggests, the book is about how people are prone to mistaking random events for those that they think have a known cause, and applying this idea across different fields (mostly financial markets in this book). For me personally, I had already covered most of this ground. However, this is still a great starting point for anyone who is unfamiliar with Taleb, as it’s significantly shorter than The Black Swan and the concepts are quite as a deep as those in the later books.

Five Stars:

Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager by Keith Gessen and n+1: I’m certainly not part of the literary community nor a regular reader of the n+1 magazine, but everything I’ve read from them has been great. Here, Keith Gessen, one of the publications cofounders, sits down for a series of interviews with an unnamed hedge fund manager from September 2007 through August 2009. What starts as an inquiry into high finance becomes a roller coaster ride through the 2008 financial crisis with each cliff documented by two people unaware of what’s around the corner.

The star of the novel is the anonymous investor. Gessen does an incredible job of maintaining an enigmatic vibe for what this person is really like personally, but giving enough background to convey that this man is not your stereotypical rich asshole. He’s an insightful, down-to-earth non-economist who happened to find himself in his position through a series of fortunate events. Anonymous man has learned much about the roots of economics and human psychology along the way and is happy to share his wisdom. I highly recommend this as an introduction into the workings of markets, economics, and the financial crisis.

This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress by Edge Magazine, Edited by John Brockman: Edge magazine sends out its annual “Edge” question to various members of the intelligentsia who are asked to write essay responses, the results of which are compiled into a book. 2014’s question was “What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?”, and the answers come from a range of experts and fields of thought (apparently many physicists are tired of the search for a “Theory of Everything” and “string theory”, while economists are trying to select the successor theories to the historically strict definitions of “economic growth” and “rationality”). Whether or not you are familiar with a scientific niche (say, evolutionary biology), the vast majority of the answers provide an interesting perspectives and food for thought in a couple pages. The best part is that this “book” is available entirely free online, so there’s no excuse for not skimming to see if there are any essays that pique your interest.

Best Book Read in the First Half of 2015:

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser: From the writer of “Fast Food Nation” comes undoubtedly his career’s hallmark achievement; the story of America’s nuclear arsenal. I have not read a work of non-fiction more engrossing than a good novel in a decade (since Barbarians at the Gate), and Schlosser surpasses that here because the scope of the story is about as grand as non-fiction can get.

“Command and Control” tells two stories, alternating chapter by chapter: First, the story of a 1980 accident at a nuclear missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, and second, the rise of the military-industrial complex throughout the 20th century in response to the Cold War.

The writing itself is paced like a Tom Clancy story, except real, and the science of nuclear weapons is explained in enough detail to appreciate their power without confusing readers or slowing the story.

The takeaway of the Damascus incident and Cold War is that mankind’s current existence is owed to the sheer luck that the world’s mismanaged nuclear warheads were never detonated anywhere, even accidentally, despite ample opportunities.

Schlosser summarizes the story’s moral:

“An entire generation has been raised without experiencing the dread and anxiety of the Cold War, a conflict that lasted almost half a century and threatened to annihilate mankind. This book assumes that most of its readers know little about nuclear weapons, their inner workings, or the strategic thinking that justifies their use. I hope readers who are familiar with these subjects will nevertheless learn a new thing or two here. My own ignorance, I now realize, was profound. No great monument has been built to honor those who served during the Cold War, who risked their lives and sometimes lost them in the name of freedom. It was ordinary men and women, not just diplomats and statesmen, who helped avert a nuclear holocaust. Their courage and their sacrifices should be remembered.”