Books Read in the Second Half of 2014

Three Stars

Foundation by Isaac Asimov: Despite being one of the canonical science-fiction works, I found Foundation to be disappointing. Upon opening the Amazon package, I was surprised by how thin the book is. Once I began reading, I realized the characters and plot were equally non-existent. The book does not get a lower rating for one reason: Considering it was written in the 40s and 50s (originally published in serialized form in a magazine, as so many novels were at the time), the two central themes of psychohistory (predicting social phenomena via mathematics) and interstellar travel were ahead of their time. Asimov was a great thinker, not a great writer.

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier: A solid non-technical discussion of the currently popular “Big Data” buzzword. There is actually less discussion of the cultural impact of “big data” than I expected. Instead, the authors mostly highlight a dozen or so companies and government agencies that have used the improved digital storage hardware and software of the past decade to build original business and learn new things about humanity. It was worth reading just for one insight I had not mulled over enough: What “Big Data” means is that one can achieve his or her goals better with naive algorithms and lots of data versus complex algorithms on smaller data sets.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: I didn’t know that the young creator of the hit HBO show “Girls” had a book out until I saw it prominently pimped at an airport bookstore. Her first published book, Dunham’s collection of essays cover what I think of as standard fare for girls who were unpopular kids in school. None of the essays really spoke to me personally, yet I finished the book due to its short essay/memoir format and Dunham’s clever but conversational writing style.

The New New Rules by Bill Maher: Whether you love or hate him, Bill Maher is (and has been for decades) one of the country’s standout political commentators. The “New Rules” segment of his HBO talk show Real Time (where he explains his satirical rules for improving society) is the show’s highlight and this book is a compendium of those segments. Despite this being a collection of previously-aired television segments, there are enough witty observations here worth reading.

Console Wars by Blake Harris: Alternatively titled “A SEGA CEO’s Memoirs”, Console Wars follows Tom Kalinske in his battle against the Nintendo monopoly of the early 90s, creating the first videogame “console war” since the 70s. The author is clearly biased in his dedication to the narrative that Sega of America was the tenacious upstart against a conservative, complacent Nintendo. In Mr. Harris’s defense, he admits his longtime acquaintanceship with Tom Kalinske. While the bias hurts the story’s depth (it focuses primarily on marketing moves and high level business politics, as opposed to deeper discussion on the state of entertainment in the 90s or the games themselves), it’s still a hell of a fun story.

The Alliance by Reid Hoffman: The founder and alumni of LinkedIn propose their alternative theory for ongoing employee-employer relationships. The Alliance establishes an honest dialogue for employees to align their career goals with companies, even if they are short-term by historical standards, and for companies to improve employee retention and productivity in our increasingly volatile work environments. It’s a thin book, as the primary points are pretty simple to explain. These points are valuable enough, along with anecdotes of these ideas in practice at LinkedIn, to spend an afternoon reading.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? by Kurt Vonnegut: I hadn’t read any of Vonnegut’s works, and he’s famous in American literary history, so I figured I should. I started with this collection of his graduation commencement speeches. These short insights into his mind were alone to convince me that, yeah, Vonnegut was a unique kind of genius. Although the content of some of the talks overlap, there is a lot of wit and wisdom in these 100-or-so large fonted pages.

Four Stars

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bolton: This short biography of Twitter focuses on it four cofounders: Ev Williams (the creator of Blogger and original supporter of Twitter), Jack Dorsey (the first developer of Twitter), Noah Glass (the co-originator of the idea with Dorsey and developer friend of Ev’s) and Biz Stone (the operational cofounder and sanity-checker of the chaotic startup). The Twitter story is really made by the sensational growth of the company and the characters that tried to corral it. Worth noting is how poorly Jack Dorsey comes across; A narcissistic, ineffective Steve Jobs wannabe who hijacked the company and media attention from the other founders.

No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay: From the leading spoken word poet of our times comes a collection of poems about young love and growing up in New York City. I don’t personally relate to most of the poems due to my personal half-cynical personality. However, the half-optimist side can’t discount her ability to make intimate, clever, and effortless wordplay. I’m also slightly biased after having seen her perform in person. Anyone who has will read this book with her energy and voice.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: Nabokov is brutal and beautiful in his writing. The first quarter of this fictional autobiography of a pedophile swiftly pierces the soul with imagery of underage prostitution and immoral nubile lust. The ending is a somber conclusion to a wholly believable illicit love. Unlike, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who can say more than most authors while using fewer words, Nabokov’s strength is effortlessly writing flowery prose. The only weakness of this classic is the slowly paced midsection.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: If anyone ever asks me to define “dark humor”, I’ll hand them Slaughterhouse Five. I now get why Vonnegut is famous. The closest comparison that came to mind is observational stand up comedians. Reading Vonnegut feels like listening to Jerry Seinfeld or Louis CK commentary on humanity’s worst depravities.

Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking by Christian Rudder: One of the founders of OkCupid uses the statistics and the large data generated by the burgeoning online dating scene to understand people. From his unique vantage point, Rudder mostly reveals things you’d already assume. There’s a lot of reaffirming stereotypes here, but perhaps it’s because stereotypes are true and most of us don’t admit it publicly? Or will having data to confirm our preconceptions change how individuals think of themselves and others in the future? These are some of the questions I walked away from Dataclysm wondering.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts: I wrote previously about Russ Roberts being one of my biggest influences, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. Roberts updates Smith’s less famous book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, for the modern age. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is Adam Smith’s philosophy book. It’s his pursuit to the answers of what morals are, what morals people should have, and how morals are an innate part of humanity. Smith’s original book, published in 1759, is hard to read. Roberts makes it accessible to everyone with modern language, examples, and length. The only reason this doesn’t get a five is that it’s tough to give the top score to a summary of someone else’s ideas. But don’t let that from deter you; this is highly recommended reading to anyone interested in bettering themselves and society.

So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan: “Forget great. It is the greatest.” So begins Corrigan’s defense of The Great Gatsby as the Greatest American Novel (whose sentiments I agree with). Corrigan, a lecturer in the English department at Georgetown and NPR show host, discusses the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the making of The Great Gatsby, it’s lack of popularity upon its release, its mid-century revival, and its canonization in American Culture. Like the Russ Roberts book reviewed earlier, it’d be hard to give a five out of five to a book about another, greater book. However, I’ve been asked many times what my favorite fiction book is. Corrigan explains the greatness of Gatsby more eloquently than I could. She’s written the definitive defense of Gatsby as the greatest English novel.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman: I’m not sure how one becomes a paid cultural essayist, but Chuck makes me want that job. “I Wear the Black Hat” is Chuck’s collection of thoughts on the concept of “villainy” in Western/American culture. He loosely presents a cohesive thesis while trying to answer the question: How do we classify someone or something as “villainous”? Chuck presents an answer, kinda sorta, and the ending is pretty anti-climatic (not that essay collections need to have a conclusion). Yet, due to Klosterman’s ability to make the mundane riveting, I read through this in a handful of days. When I can’t put a book down, even when I’m not sure why I like it so much other than the author’s style, I have to give it a great rating.

The Physics of Wall Street: A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable by James Weatherall: There’s been a great debate the past century about whether using highly complex mathematics can improve the stock market and investing versus older business fundamentals. I generally fall toward the latter based on what I perceive as very little value provided to financial markets by “economists” misguided by “physics envy”. But if there was ever a great counterargument to my side of the debate, Weatherall has written it. The Physics of Wall Street chronicles the history of physics’s influence on finance and concludes with his manifesto on improving and increasing the use of math in finance. His stance, which is that much of the math has been naive and that continued mathematical creativity will only improve our understanding, is compelling and even-keeled. While I haven’t been drawn to the quant dark side, and a lot of the historical figures and events have been told in other books, Weatherall (himself a physicist) has done a thorough research job. I learned new things, and the things I already knew are accessible to newcomers to the field.

Five Stars

The Tragedy of the European Union: Disintegration or Revival? by George Soros and Gregor Schmitz: In this series of interviews in 2013 between the German report Schmitz and famous investor Soros, Soros prescribes his solutions to the European Union’s political and economic woes. His primary ideas: Germany needs to worry less about following existing treaties, lighten it’s forced austerity upon debtor nations, and move all European Union country’s debts from national issues to one “eurobond”. The book is short but filled with insight as Soros elaborates on these points and includes a paper of his published in an economics journal on his “Reflexivity” philosophy of financial markets. Regardless of how closely you follow Euro-zone politics, any insight into Soros’s thinking is worthwhile.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters: Based on his lectures at a startup class at Stanford, entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel has published (with the help of student/employee Blake Masters) his critical insights he’s learned from a lifetime in the technology industry. It’s short and every line is filled with business wisdom. Anyone going into business or economics needs to read Zero to One.

The Best Book I’ve Read in the Last Six Months

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert Pirsig:

I could write my own review of this masterpiece. However, in the afterword for the ten-year anniversary of its publishing, Pirsig commented on why he believed the book became, according to The London Telegraph, “the most widely read philosophy book ever”. I feel his description of his work is more insightful than anything I would add:

“There is a Swedish word, kulturbärer, which can be translated as “culture-bearer” but still doesn’t mean much. It’s not a concept that has much American use, although it should have.

A culture-bearing book, like a mule, bears the culture on its back. No one should sit down to write one deliberately. Culture-bearing books occur almost accidentally, like a sudden change in the stock market. There are books of high quality that are a part of the culture, but that is not the same. They are a part of it. They aren’t carrying it anywhere. They may talk about insanity sympathetically, for example, because that’s the standard cultural attitude. But they don’t carry any suggestion that insanity might be something other than sickness or degeneracy.

Culture-bearing books challenge cultural value assumptions and often do so at a time when the culture is changing in favor of their challenge. The books are not necessarily of high quality. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was no literary masterpiece but it was a culture-bearing book. It came at a time when the entire culture was about to reject slavery. People seized upon it as a portrayal of their own new values and it became an overwhelming success.

The success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems the result of this culture-bearing phenomenon. The involuntary shock treatment described here is against the law today. It is a violation of human liberty. The culture has changed.

The book also appeared at a time of cultural upheaval on the matter of material success. Hippies were having none of it. Conservatives were baffled. Material success was the American dream. Millions of European peasants had longed for it all their lives and come to America to find it…a world in which they and their descendants would at last have enough. Now their spoiled descendants were throwing that whole dream in their faces, saying it wasn’t any good. What did they want?

The hippies had in mind something that they wanted, and were calling it “freedom,” but in the final analysis “freedom” is a purely negative goal. It just says something is bad. Hippies weren’t really offering any alternatives other than colorful short-term ones, and some of these were looking more and more like pure degeneracy. Degeneracy can be fun but it’s hard to keep up as a serious lifetime occupation.

This book offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine. That is the main reason for the book’s success, I think. The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer. That is the sense in which it is a culture-bearer.”