Books Read in the Second Half of 2016

Due to a very busy start to 2017, it’s taken a couple months to play catch-up on writing the latest set of reviews. My reading material in second half of 2016 was heavily influenced by career changes throughout the year, moving into product management, marketing and analytics. For everyone who reads my book reviews looking for something novel and/or thought-provoking, there are still a couple of hopefully unexpected picks (often picked up during my random but frequent stops at local bookstores).

One Star (Not Recommended):

Growth Hacker Marketing- A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising by Ryan Holiday:
I picked this up mostly due to Holiday’s online reputation as a prominent “growth hacker” blogger and marketer. This book in particular was disappointing as Holiday admits it was basically compiled from blog posts and smaller eBooks he’s already written. It’s very thin, repeats some already well-known online viral marketing tales. The target for this book really old-school marketers who haven’t figured out the digital era. For anyone in the demographic of having an active online life, Growth Hacker Marketing really doesn’t have much to teach.

Two Stars (Limited Recommendation for those interested in subject):

Straight to Hell – True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion Dollar Deals by John LeFevre:
When I was taking finance and economics classes in college, the Goldman Sachs Elevator twitter feed was all the rage with the bankers-to-be. LeFevre was able to leverage his viral Twitter feed into a book deal, though not without controversy regarding the accuracy of the content and the author’s employment background. Straight to Hell reads like the twitter account (including excerpts from the feed). The problem is the online material lends itself better to pithy one-liners than a full-length book. Compared to “Monkey Business” and “Liars Poker”, it’s not as informative on the actual going-ons of investment banking, and the coke-and-hookers antics are less extreme than “The Wolf of Wall Street”.

Inbound Marketing – Attract, Engage, and Delight Customers Online by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah: Halligan and Shah are the co-founders of Hubspot, a marketing software company that helps any company grow their business through “inbound” marketing. What this means is figuring out how to attract customers into seeking you out, instead of a company having to do paid advertising or have sales teams.

This book is Hubspot’s introductory guide into the digital techniques for inbound marketing, and it’s a disappointment. Published in 2014, much of the content is either already outdated (use the StumbleUpon browser plugin bar), oversimplified (the definition of a prospective customer funnel), or obvious (how to set up a Twitter account). I picked this up to see if it provided any insights for my work in online marketing, and while it’s not really incorrect on anything and has some ideas worth thinking over, there’s not much value here you can’t find elsewhere.

Three Stars (Recommended):

Inspired – How to Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan:
Purchased by my boss’s boss for the product management team at my last job (iLoan.com), Inspired seems to be one of the most popular books on the role of Product Management. Given the content, I’m a little surprised by this fact and I feel like there’s a market opportunity for a deeper guide or story about product management. Inspired works much better as an introduction to product management for the uninitiated than a textbook for teaching expert-level PM techniques to those already in it. Most of the material covers what someone who has knowledge or has worked as a PM would/should already know (the difference between “product” and “project” management, balancing tradeoffs between design, engineering, and business, customer and market research, etc). It’s also a surprisingly quick read. If you’re someone who works with product managers (as an engineer, designer, or marketer), this is a helpful read which will educate you on what these people do (or should be doing).

Winning with Data – Transform Your Culture, Empower Your People, and Shape the Future by Tomasz Tunguz and Frank Bien:
Written by the CEO of business intelligence company Looker and one of his investors, Winning With Data is clearly self-promotional. But it’s not without value. Tunguz and Bien’s brief guide to building a “data-driven” organization has a couple of novel chapters (data applied to human resources and sales departments). But for the most parts, the chapters and examples are all centered around Looker’s own customers, and the briefness of the book really make it feel like marketing material. Because of how thin it is, I’m inclined to say it should be picked up in a cheaper e-book format and read on a flight.

Traction – How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares:
A good skim for anyone working in a startup wanting to experiment with new ideas for growing your organization. Weinberg and Mares, through dozens of interviews with entrepreneurs and marketers, have compiled a collection of diverse methods for new customer acquisition. The only catch is that they’ve done such a good job blogging their work, you can get a good chunk of the knowledge for free online!

Crossing the Chasm – Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers by Geoffrey Moore
Considered one of the canonical books on marketing, particularly for technology products, Crossing the Chasm describes a common dilemma new companies face: How do I grow my business beyond early enthusiasts who will experiment on untested technology and into mainstream markets expecting polished products? Moore’s prescribed solution is a combination of defining a subset of the mainstream that you can land on as your “beachhead” and then what additions you need to make to your early technology to make it a complete solution to that beachhead’s problems to the point they’ll pay you for it.

The rest of the book delves into the details of the decisions that go into all of this (product development, pricing, marketing tactics) paired with numerous case studies. It’s got enough business jargon (“Positioning is a noun, not a verb”) that might turn off readers not interested in the topic. Due to originally being published in 1991, it also suffers from most aspiring tech entrepreneurs already having learned it’s insights through osmosis elsewhere. But I personally always enjoy reading the original sources.

The Death of WCW: 10th Anniversary Edition by Bryan Alvarez and R.D. Reynolds:
A lot of people in modern America forget just how popular professional wrestling was in the late 1990s, which were the peak adolescent years for my generation. And during what the industry has coined “The Monday Night Wars”, WCW became the only wrestling company, for a brief couple years, to make more money and be more popular than the now monopolistic World Wrestling Entertainment. In fact, WCW would at one point in 1997 be not only the most popular wrestling company in the world, but the single most-watched television show in all of cable television. This is a fact that seems lost on people today due to how far wrestling has fallen in pop culture. But there was a time only 15 years ago when wrestling was the most popular show on cable television.

“WCW” stands for “World Championship Wrestling”, which was a wrestling company created by media mogul Ted Turner through an acquisition of another failing wrestling business based in the American South in the late 1980s. Off the back of creative storytelling and large investments by billionaire Ted Turner, it would rise to a valuation (based on proposed acquisition offers from other media companies) of $500 million in 1999, mirroring the rise of the dot-com boom in that same era. It would turn out that the dot-com boom would lead to WCW’s bust, as a series of corporate deals led WCW to be owned by America Online (yes, AOL at one time owned a professional wrestling company), whose new public company status could not support the $60 million WCW lost in the year 2000. AOL would pull the plug on WCW by selling its assets to the WWE for a mere $3 million, a stunning plummet for a business in a year and a half.

“The Death of WCW” is a business book as much as it is a wrestling book. The overarching business lesson is that customers of any business just want a good product, and if you start sacrificing on the core quality of your offering, no other antics or promotions or salesmanship will keep them. And if things are going well, limited success will cover a lot of internal mistakes. Once business turns for the worse, the whole house of cards collapses so quickly, there is no time to wait for a rebuilding.

I first came across this book when it was originally published in 2004. This 10th anniversary edition is double the size and almost goes into too much detail of the week-to-week changes in the wrestling industry for the uninitiated. However, this is also a testament to the work Alvarez has done in thoroughly researching and documenting the story of a company who, most importantly, played a significant role in the childhoods of tens of millions of Americans in the 1990s.

Disrupted – My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble by Dan Lyons:
Dan Lyons made a name for himself with his sardonic parody of Apple’s cofounder via his blog Fake Steve Jobs. Since winding down the blogging, his career has taken a series of unexpected turns. Laid off from role as a Newsweek reporter, Dan decided to take his wordsmithing into the startup land he once covered.

The company he lands at is Hubspot. For those unaware, Hubspot is a billion dollar company which sells marketing and sales software for businesses (it’s a mix of basic website form builders, customer relationship tracking, and some other minimum odds and ends a business might need to manage its online presence).

Dan’s year there turns into a nightmare for himself and the company, and Lyon’s journalistic roots motivated him to write this scathing expose of the company and startup culture at large. Dan, in his mid-50s, has immediate cultural clash with a company staffed by twenty-somethings. I’m an old soul, so I particularly enjoyed relating to the young startup employees working for low salary but free beer and candy and team praise in the form of emails ending in exclamation points, while at the same time understanding Dan’s insight into how vapid and fleeting a culture like this is. It may be surprising if even 50% of Hubspot’s current full time employees are there five years from now, and Disrupted does an adequate job of juxtapositioning this against the employment world Dan grew up in.

On one hand, Hubspot clearly has operational issues. Specifically, it seems like they’re growing their “inbound marketing” business through traditional “outbound” sales methods of having call centers staffed with low wage phone jockeys calling up small businesses and pushing them to buy a $10,000 piece of software they may not need.

If I have any issue with this story, it’s that it does seem somewhat sour to very publicly trash a company’s reputation that did pay you for a year and hired you when you were unemployed.

However, when it came to light that Hubspot executives were using illegal means to try to hack Lyon’s life and prevent this book from getting published, the company surely deserves the public relations hit it has taken since Disrupted was published.

Four Stars (Highly recommended for those interested in topic, or generally recommended for anyone):

Seinlanguage by Jerry Seinfeld:

I found this 90’s gem in the discount bookshelf at a thrift store somewhere in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Seinlanguage is a collection of essays Jerry wrote before starting his famous sitcom, and the stories served as the basis for many of his standup routines and TV episodes. So if you’re a fan of Seinfeld (the man or the show), much of the material will be familiar, yet I found enough original bits which made me genuinely laugh out loud. Seinfeld’s legendary abilities as an observational comic have been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere, so I’ll just reiterate that his insights into human behavior or so keen, and so clearly conveyed in Seinlanguage, it’s absolutely worth the $7 it costs for a copy online.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli:
One of the greatest joys in life is walking into an old, small bookstore in an unknown land with no deadlines and no worries. While in New Orleans last Autumn for a family wedding, I had a lull in between festivities where I got to walk around the city and stumbled upon Faulkner House Books, a cozy floor-to-ceiling packed store. Befitting the store where I found this book, Rovelli’s brief history of physics was a fantastic find. It’s a sub-100 page, double-spaced explanation of the major concepts of physics since Einstein. One might not expect a physicist to be so eloquent. Rovelli’s writing (likely aided for American readers by translators) is clear and clever. He’s also demonstrably a deep thinker, sprinkling philosophical thoughts throughout the physics. It was such a perfect breezy read I flew through it in one coffee shop trip and on the flight home.

Creativity Inc – Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace:
Ed Catmull may not be a household name, but his work certainly is. As the President of Pixar since it’s inception (when the Pixar team and technology was purchased from George Lucas by Steve Jobs), Catmull and his team have had an immeasurable impact on the happiness of humanity.

This is his half-personal, half-business biography, with the book itself split into two major portions: The first half is the biography of Catmull’s childhood and education breaking into the burgeoning field of computer graphics, working for George Lucas at Lucasfilm, and then founding Pixar with the support of Steve Jobs. The second half is a collection of lessons learned over his 30+ year career at Pixar as they faced specific challenges ranging from the technological, financial, and personal.

The book this most reminded me of is the previously reviewed Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”. They both follow the same format described above, and it’s a format I enjoy. When it comes to “business books”, I think it’s much more meaningful if the authors take the approach of “Here are problems I faced and how I dealt with them at the time. In retrospect, I maybe should’ve done this differently,” as opposed to the direct, infomercial-ly, self-help approach of, “This is how you can make a million dollars!”

Creativity Inc is a solid read for anything interested in working in any business or creative profession.

The Song Machine – Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook:
I think a majority of people have an instinctual knowledge that modern mainstream music is formulaic in sound and structure. But most haven’t delved into why music all sounds the same, when it started (The Beatles certainly didn’t sound like our current pop and hip hop stars) and how it got this way.

Seabrook’s “Song Machine” unveils the history of the greatest hit song machine in musical history, as measured by quantity of Top 100 hits (only behind The Beatles), length of time (30 years), and variety of artists. The machine? Swedish record studio Cheiron Studios was founded by Denniz PoP and taken to greater heights and legendary status by his protege Max Martin.

Their resume as song makers is unprecedented, starting with the major hits for both the Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC, followed by Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, Avril Lavigne, Pink, Katy Perry, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift. And what made them so special was nailing the modern formula: 80s stadium rock mixed with hip-hop dance-ability and rhythm mixed with choruses that can be both sung and danced to.

Along with the mythic story of Cheiron Studios’ creation and steady growth to industry powerhouse, “Song Machine” follows the beginning of the careers for the 90s major boy bands, Rihanna, and Ke$ha, along with the colorful and volatile personalities of their managers and producers.

Overall, it’s a succinct look at the history of modern pop told through the lens of its primary rainmakers. I am always personally fascinated by stories of how a small group of people (a few guys in a recording studio in Sweden) can have an inordinate impact on culture worldwide. It is profound to think that this handful of people essentially created the soundtrack to my generation, and the legend of their music factory, with the help of this book, will not be forgotten.

Five Stars (Highly Recommend to Everyone):

Chaos Monkeys – Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley by Antonio Garcia Martinez:

This book is the best representation and explanation of current Silicon Valley. Chaos Monkeys, named after a technical tool from Netflix, is a memoir of Antonio’s professional career from 2010 to 2014 which included stops at many of the brand names of the Valley: Quant at Goldman Sachs and an adtech firm, starting his own adtech company funded by Y Combinator, selling that company to Twitter, and landing at Facebook.

What stood out to me is that someone so seemingly ingrained in the system would be willing to write a tell-all, including naming names, at a still relatively young age, when he could seemingly still milk it. However, two points become apparent while reading:

  1. The easy money is not as easy, or large, as headlines make it sound.
  2. In the machine of Silicon Valley, people’s memories are short and he’ll have little trouble remaining in the system.

Since it is a memoir, the reader’s reaction to the book will largely be influenced by their perception of the author. Antonio seems like someone who is not honest in the sense of strict truth-telling, but is honest with himself and his worldviews. His own opinionatedness and outspokenness comes through clearly, as does his self-awareness.

Beyond the author’s life story, readers are treated to inside scoop on the machinations of America’s glory industry: web businesses. The acquisition dance between startups and tech giants, and the inner managerial dysfunctions of Twitter and Facebook are elaborated from Antonio’s quasi-insider vantage point.

Chaos Monkeys and Silicon Valley as a whole is well summarized in this book excerpt, surely written to be quoted in reviews such as this:

“Investors are people with more money than time.
Employees are people with more time than money.
Entrepreneurs are simply the seductive go-betweens.
Startups are business experiments performed with other people’s money.
Marketing is like sex: only losers pay for it.”

Why We Get Fat – And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes:
Nowadays the dangers of sugar and excess carbohydrates are increasingly household knowledge. This was not nearly as true in 2010 when Taubes published “Why We Get Fat”, and the knowledge contained within is still not pervasive enough in American society.

“Why We Get Fat” is essentially a slimmer, more consumable take on Taubes’ 2008 book “Good Calories, Bad Calories”. He does a concise yet convincing job of disproving many of the common theories around weight gain and loss, particularly the ideas of calories-in versus calories out (the biology and chemistry of what kinds of calories consumed does influence on fat creation/destruction), overeating and laziness as causes of obesity (anecdotal and genetic evidence says otherwise), and that socioeconomics factors cause obesity (supporting academic research from both the humanities and natural sciences can demonstrate the social/economic evidence is symptomatic, not causal, of obesity).

Next, Taubes takes the time to explain the real causes of obesity, which delves into the specifics of hormone chemistry and how the body metabolizes different sugars. Thankfully Taubes is a journalist by trade (with a graduate degree in engineering) and has the ability to make the complex readable, while providing extensive references for those requiring scientific sources.

This isn’t a diet book (though it does contain an appendix with food suggestions). It isn’t a biology textbook. It’s just a well-written, high-level read for anyone who wants to improve his or her own health.

Best Book Read in the Second Half of 2016

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D.:
I first started this book in 2012, when I decided to buy it on a whim during a random trip to Barnes and Noble senior year of college. A few months later, it was one of the few items I packed in my bag carried with me onto a Megabus as I moved to a new city to start a new post-college life. On that 8 hour bus ride from Columbus to Chicago, I got through a majority of the book and purposefully set it aside because I didn’t want to finish it until I was ready to write a review for it and wanted the content to be fresh in my mind when I did. A few months ago, as 2016 was ending, I was ready to revisit this book and complete it knowing it would receive my highest recommendation in this set of reviews.

How Doctors Think covers a lot of examples of one overarching theme: how do doctors make decisions? As the back cover adds, the major sub-topics include why doctors succeed in decision-making and diagnosis (where expertise comes is useful), where they make errors (where expertise and experience blinds them), and how patients can influence their doctors (emphasizing that individuals can both take control of their health while also avoiding their own set of cognitive biases).

Groopman tells a story familiar to anyone interested in economics such as myself. It’s the story behavioral economics (Nobel-winning psychologists Kahneman and Tversky are cited early in the book) and fallibility of the human mind. The author does a few things tremendously well here:

  • Apply the academic work of behavioral economics to a different domain
  • Turning intellectual questions into a narrative
  • Creating this narrative out of real world anecdotes.

It is this third bullet where How Doctors Think really makes a profound impression on the reader. It is one thing to discuss human biases in academic exercises and brain teasers. Mental errors take on a deeper meaning when the results are doctors missing cancer in someone’s body because they ignored certain symptoms, or suggesting a surgery that kills someone who didn’t need to cut open. These heart wrenching stories of debt and death in our medical system due to human error should concern everyone. Luckily, Groopman summarizes these stories with lessons and suggestions to doctors and patients for improving decision-making and ultimately healthcare. I’m not listing these lessons here because you might not internalize them without the profound emotional impact How Doctors Think conveys.

Books Read in the First Half of 2016

As a reference, my grading scale is:

One Star: Not recommended for any number of reasons (poorly written, lack of content, poor depth-to-length ratio).

Two Stars: Not recommended, but tends to have a few worthwhile moments that would merit skimming, or is written for a small niche that might find something worthwhile.

Three Stars: Recommended, but either covers too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience or doesn’t offer enough depth to be really interesting.

Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.

Five Stars: Strongly recommended due to superb writing or research material. These books could expertly appeal to a wide audience or cover their subject so thoroughly to be authoritative accounts of their topics.

Additionally, I pick one book every six months as the “best book I’ve read” during that time period.

Three Star

Hipster Business Models – How to Make a Living in the Modern World by Priceonomics: Disregard the cheesy, off-putting title. Hipster Business Models is a collection of essays on eccentric ways people are making money, such as a Cheeto photographer and brothers who travel the country in a van doing odd jobs. The level of interestingness and originality varies from story to story. The essay format makes each chapter readable on its own and the less interesting ones skippable. A quick, fun read to give you ideas for how you’d make money if circumstances forced you to get creative, or you want to monetize your pre-existing offbeat side.

The Third Wave- An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future by Steve Case: The cofounder and CEO of American Online has released his first book almost two decades since he took AOL to the peak of the dot-com bubble. I decided to pick this up when I happened to see it on the shelf at a nearby Barnes and Noble and recognized it from Steve Case’s marketing blitz for it the past few months. Named after a book of the same title by futurist Alvin Toffler that Case read when he was younger, “The Third Wave” is half memoir and half futurology, with alternating chapters covering Case’s story in building AOL in the 90s and his predictions for the future of the internet.

The three waves as described by Case are three approximately 15-year periods: First, 1985 to 2000 as the period of building the Internet and its infrastructure; Second, 2000-2015 when companies made web applications and businesses on the Internet; and now the third wave is building “the Internet of Everything”, where all of society is imbued with the Internet in the same way electricity is embedded into modern life.

Considering the book covers two topics, Case keeps the writing succinct and readable. While not particularly deep on any of the future topics, it’ll provide less techno-centric people interesting brainfood on the future of the Internet and insight into the making of AOL, one of the flag-bearers of the Internet gold rush.

Work Rules – Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Lazlo Bock: Google’s Head of People Operations has written the manual for how Google hires and manages employees and creates an environment which has won numerous “Best Places to Work” awards. Bock’s writing style is simple and full of wisdom, as if Mark Twain ran your human resources department. The big difference between Google and most other companies is a bias towards trusting people and believing they are generally morally good. This one belief informs all other management decisions. The key takeaway from this book, beyond the specific Google-implementation examples, is that most companies can replicate Google’s culture, and many already have with great success.

Four Star

Phishing for Phools – The Economics of Manipulation and Deception by George Akerlof and Robert Schiller: Structured like a dissertation without any of the charts or equations. It concludes with a chapter specifically explaining its contribution to the economics field, which I’ll attempt to summary in a jargony one-liner:

Deception by people or firms is a natural outcome in competitive free markets where there are profit opportunities caused by informational or psychological asymmetries.

While that should summarize the message of the book, it’s an incredibly quick and fun read as the two economics Nobel Prize winners walk through a dozen examples of this dynamic. Highly recommended for anyone interested in economics or psychology. Only reason it doesn’t earn a five is because there’s not a lot of “new” knowledge, just new semi-formal framing and perspective on problems most people already understand intuitively.

Five Star

The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert: A truly historic event is happening to life on Earth, and it’s not just climate change. We are in the midst of what scientists identify as an “extinction event”, a short period of time where the diversity of life on Earth rapidly diminishes.

“Sixth Extinction” is structured, like many books I like, with two alternating running stories. Half of the book follows Kolbert’s global travels as she tracks down scientific experts on endangered and extinct species, interviewing them on why we’re observing such a loss of global organism diversity. The other half of the book is a walkthrough of the history of extinction research with highlights of the prominent geologists, zoologists, and other-ologists who’ve promoted the idea that species can be both appear and disappear during the historical timeline of life.

One surprising theme Kolbert uncovers is that modern humans are not just causing our current extinction event, but caused previous ones as well, as identified by the correlation of human expansion with the major declines in species extinction over tens of thousands of years.

The journalism is detailed, the scientific explanations understandable, and the stakes high. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, “The Sixth Extinction” is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves thoughtful and desirous in understanding the fate of humanity.

Managing Humans – Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager by Michael Lopp: In my last set of reviews, my top pick was “High Output Management”, which was partially about being an executive leader of a large (technology) organization. “Managing Humans” is a great complement, giving very tangible recommendations for working with and managing people (and not just in the software business). Drawing from decades of experience as a leader at some of the preeminent companies in Silicon Valley (seriously, check out his resume), Lopp provides tips for running meetings, getting the most out of your team without them hating you, how to work across departments, interviewing (on both sides of the table), and much more. This is all done with the same clarity and wit as his blog Rands In Repose.

The Best Book I’ve Read In The First Half of 2016

But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman: For my 2010 self, Chuck Klosterman was a name I was only vaguely aware, having seen it mentioned by other journalists in articles about pop-culture and on the recognizable cover of his book “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”.

Then in the Autumn of that year, the NFL released a video series on the 100 greatest football players in history. O.J. Simpson, a hall of fame-caliber football player and world-renowned convicted felon, made the list. His video package was narrated by Chuck Klosterman. I knew little about both men. I was struck by Klosterman’s willingness to acknowledge someone for their tangible accomplishments when I’m sure many others would be unwilling to do the same.

This stellar video, where Klosterman explains how O.J. Simpson may have arguably been the best football player in the world for a few years in the early 70s and held the records for most yards in a single game and season, was posted by the NFL a few weeks ago.

“But What If We’re Wrong” is not about football, but it is a continuation of Klosterman’s willingness to question convention. The subtitle is an accurate one-liner of the content. I’ll rephrase it as, “How will future humans, when looking back in history, think about the time we are currently living in?”

My restated subtitle of the book is answered by the implication of the title: What we currently think is important and what we think will be important to future generations is most likely wrong. The primary supporting argument is that this has historically been the case; what we currently think about past generations is rarely what past generations thought about themselves.

This point is supported with chapters on individual cultural aspects: literature, music, television, architecture, physics, sports, and politics. Each theme is then dissected in two ways: what are the past and present beliefs in this field, and what do we think the future human beliefs will be on this same issue?

The conclusion, as suggested by Klosterman, is that the future is unsurprisingly unknowable, yet people are unsurprisingly confident about their knowledge. This leads Klosterman into an overlapping field with one of my other favorite (and previously reviewed) authors, Nassim Taleb.

Klosterman’s work, while thematically similar to Taleb, is more of cross between Malcolm Gladwell (writing about complex topics in a simpler, relatable style) with the pot-smoking burnout most people know at least one of in real-life or have seen in movies (this comparison due to pattern of finding profundity in the banal, superficial aspects of life). However, this comparison is meant as a compliment. Chuck elevates himself above perpetual stoners having “high-deas” in dorms by concretely producing coherent content.

Past work had elevated Klosterman from music critic to cultural commentator. “But What If We’re Wrong?”, which I read in a few non-stop sittings a few weekends ago, firmly places him in my opinion as a mainstream cultural philosopher.

Books Read in the Second Half of 2015

One Star

Wrestling for My Life by Shawn Michaels:
I’ve already written before about how Shawn Michaels is one of my personal influences, so it’s not a surprise I picked up his newest biography. Sadly, it’s not one I can widely recommend. Michaels, a born-again Christian, wrote this book primarily to demonstrate examples of how to integrate Christianity into one’s life, with him only using professional wrestling stories to demonstrate how his Christian values informed his work. If you’re a wrestling fan, you won’t find many new behind-the-scenes stories, and if you’re deeply religious, you probably won’t care about the wrestling content.

Three Star

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz:
I decided to read this on the recommendation of multiple friends. It’s not the kind of book I’d typically read. It’s fiction that very much feels like it was written to be read by humanities majors (flowery descriptions, written in the style of specific character voices instead of a distant narrator). “Oscar Wao” is the story of a Dominican family that moves to New York City, and a reflection of the family’s ancestry in their dictator-destroyed homeland. The first half lays a lot of the character groundwork. The second half of the book picks up the pace and visceral-ness. The flashbacks to the brutality of the Dominican Republic and the emotional scars left on those who escaped and their descendants did resonate with me by the end.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway:
I hadn’t read Hemingway before and probably won’t again, considering I was told that “The Sun Also Rises” was the place to start. The story, about a group of young, upper-middle class friends traveling Europe together in the 1920s, doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere. The characters don’t really feel deeply developed either, so what you’re mostly reading is a period piece about the post-World War One “Lost Generation”. I do like Hemingway’s writing style, which is succinct with dialogue that finely balances being timely and modern. Sadly, for an author and book touted as a classic, I did not find the writing style original enough or the message profound enough to earn its status.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari:
I got a Kindle for Christmas, so maybe my first foray into e-book reading influenced my enjoyment of this book. I zoomed through “Modern Romance” in a couple of nonstop, multi-hour sittings. Ansari uses a surprisingly large amount of academic research, combined with his own comedy material, to explain how dating works for the millennial generation. This includes the rise of texting, dating apps, and economic uncertainty. If you’re a fan of Aziz’s standup, his Netflix show “Master of None”, or Tinder, you’ll probably enjoy this.

Four Stars

What to Think About Machines That Think by Edge Magazine and edited by John Brockman:
The 2015 Edge magazine question: “What do you think about machines that think?”. In order to answer this question, I think you have to answer three derivative questions: One, how do you define what is a “machine”? Two, what does it mean for something “to think”? And three, is what you answered in question one capable of doing what you described in question two?

The hundreds of intelligentsia who provided Edge with essay responses gave a whole span of answers to all of these. There’s no specific conclusion, just a lot of food for thought about the future of machines, humanity, and our intertwined fates.

How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg:
One of the better business books I’ve read, the former CEO of Google and one of its top leaders speak on a variety of topics based. Interestingly, and no surprise given Google’s numerous awards, the first chapter is on company culture and following chapters on hiring and communication emphasize that people management is a primary task of creating a great company. The other chapter subjects (strategy, decision-making, and innovation) are supported by having the right people and giving them support and room to do their jobs.

The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche and translated by Walter Kaufmann:
I’m generally not a reader of traditional “philosophy” books, especially the classics, because they seem unapproachable due to denseness, less-relevant due to time, or are a lot of fluff without meat. Nietzsche has some of these issues. Yet his phrasing and and logical framing of varied aspects of humanity are so thought-provoking as to make this book very readable and quotable. The Gay Science is organized as a collection of 350+ thought topics, each typically a couple paragraphs. It was written over the course of a decade and covers much ground, including many of the author’s major themes from his other works. I’m still not sure to what extent I agree with his philosophies (which are long, nuanced, and better summarized through his Wikipedia page as opposed to here) because many of the ideas still haven’t been worked through in my own mind.

Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the U.S. Mortgage Giants by Bethany McLean:
McLean, one of the primary people whose reporting helped expose Enron, has produced third book, highlights our country’s ongoing struggle of managing the mortgage industry. Shaky Ground specifically focuses on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored business that were quasi-nationalized by the government during the 2008 financial crisis. Almost a decade later, the status of these companies hasn’t changed, but they are still operating as a central hub in the housing industry, which itself has thousands of economic spokes all connected to it. Ideological wars between private shareholders in these companies and the two major political parties have ultimately resulted in an unproductive stalemate, leaving our economy still hinged on large, old institutions. The history of these issues and the current quagmire are excellently and concisely reported in a quick 150 pages.

Five Stars and Best Book Read in the Second Half of 2015

High Output Management by Andy Grove:
My first reading of this book and writing about it are incredibly timely: the author and former CEO of Intel passed away a couple weeks ago. We all are lucky that what he left us is the best book on management.

I could describe the details of HOM, the specific tips and directions Grove gave us. However, there are so many great lessons, and the book is thin enough to knock out in a couple sittings, that I’d rather you order a copy and then read this excerpt on Andy Grove by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz:

“Andy himself was a legendary figure. He had grown up Jewish in Hungary during a time when the country was occupied by the Nazis and, later, by the Soviet Communists. Arriving in New York, he spoke no English and had almost no money. He enrolled himself at the City College of New York, overcame his language deficiency, and went on to get a PhD from UC Berkeley. This nonnative English speaker would then write an important textbook on semiconductors in English while working at Fairchild Semiconductor. As a result, he was considered a scientific pioneer even before helping to launch Intel in 1968, building it into the seminal technology company of the era. Later, in 1997, Time magazine would recognize his nearly impossible accomplishments and name him Man of the Year.

This is in part what made High Output Management so extraordinary. Andy Grove, who built himself from nothing to run Intel, stopped what he was doing to teach us his magic. And not through some ghostwriter either — Andy wrote this book himself. What an incredible gift.”

This books is so good, it actually depresses me thinking about how many managers have either not read the book or have read it and not internalized it, because there are so many managers still making preventable mistakes. If you want to ever be a manager, High Output Management is required reading.

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.”

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.”

Books Read in the First Half of 2014

My previous book review posts have been some of my most popular, so I’ll continue to post reviews every six months. This time around I’ll add some context for how I designate my ratings:

One Star: I would not recommend to anyone for any number of reasons (poorly written, lack of content, or plain unreadable).

Two Stars: Generally would not recommend, but tends to have a few worthwhile moments that would merit skimming.

Three Stars: Recommended, but either covers too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience or doesn’t offer enough depth to be really interesting.

Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.

Five Stars: Strongly recommended due to superb writing or research material. These books could expertly appeal to a wide audience or cover their source subject so thoroughly to be authoritative accounts of their topic.

As I’ve done previously, I’ll continue to pick one book as my “Best Book Read in the Past Six Months”, which is generally the Five Star book which I loved and feel others could connect with as well.

Last note: I typically exclude textbooks. The line between non-fiction and textbook is grey. When it comes to defining something as a non-fiction, non-textbook, I respond as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once did: “I know it when I see it.”

Here the books I’ve read thus far in 2014.

Two Stars:

Trading with the Enemy: Seduction and Betrayal on Jim Cramer’s Wall Street by Nicholas Maier –

I’m generally a fan of Jim Cramer’s (having met him briefly and taking his show with a shaker of salt). Hearing a book by an ex-employee was published claiming Cramer’s hedge fund committed nefarious market manipulation and front-running in the 90s, it was only fair of me to read it and weigh it against my bias. Sadly, the story is thin (read the whole thing in a couple hours!) and the writing is high school amateurism. I was entertained, but if the Maier’s intent was to whisteblow on Cramer’s potentially unethical activities, one would think he’d approach it with more professionalism.

Three Stars:

The New New Thing by Michael Lewis –

The weakest of the Michael Lewis books I’ve read. The New New Thing chronicles the experiences of technology entrepreneur Jim Clark as he comes from nowhere to become one of the central figures of the dot-com boom. Published in 2000 just before the crash, the book seeps optimism for the new economy and its new new things. What keeps this book from being as interesting as Lewis’s others is that Jim Clark himself is mostly not as interesting as Michael Oher in The Blind Side, Billy Beane in Moneyball, or the short-sellers in The Big Short. Lewis loses focus midway through the book with chapters on Clark’s high-tech yacht. Despite understanding that it’s really a metaphor for Clark’s vision and ambitions, it’s doesn’t hold your attention. The bulk of the character development is saved for the final chapter, which gives The New New Thing a strong finish, but in a character-driven story, it means most of the book lacks all the intrigue which gets shoehorned in at the end.

No Regrets by n+1 –

This second roundtable discussion from the growing literary magazine’s staff focuses on two questions: What do we regret in our youth, and what should the relationship between women and literature be? As in the previously reviewed “What We Should Have Known”, the editors are simultaneously insightful and relatable. Compared to the aforementioned book, No Regrets wasn’t as relatable to me personally due to the feminine focus. A worthwhile read for men regardless.

How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams –

“Nothing in this book should be seen as advice. It’s never a good idea to take advice from cartoonists,” writes the Dilbert creator. He probably wrote that knowing that he had essentially written a self-help book. I typically avoid the genre, but who wouldn’t want to hear how to become rich and happy from one of the most famous and hilarious comic creators in history? It doesn’t hurt that he’s an entertaining writer outside of comic strip boxes too. Most of what he writes is truly valuable, giving his anecdotal experiences with low carb diets, weightlifting, and generally being lucky (and unlucky) in life.

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis –

Lewis still knows how to make complex, high stakes, and high finance stories entertaining. This book still follows the structure of most of his books: A disenchanted industry insider makes radical moves to reshape his part of an industry. Flash Boys’s failing is that, while Lewis explains the problems with high-frequency trading well, he doesn’t really present in the book enough content from what goes on inside those firms. Other than listing Citadel, Virtu Financial, and some talk of big bank dark pools, he doesn’t turn any of them into a real villain. Whether that’s due to a lack of access to insiders or more interest in telling a different story, I’m not sure.

Four Stars:

Young Money: Inside the World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits by Kevin Roose –

In an impressive piece of journalism, Roose follows almost a dozen recent college grads over multiple years in New York City as they live the investment banker lifestyle post-financial crisis. Roose does a solid job of painting a picture of an industry still living more lavishly than it deserves, yet slowly rotting from the inside as new recruits start to jade and question their lives sooner.

The Everything Store by Brad Stone –

This biography of Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, is a solid piece of modern internet business journalism. Despite spending limited time on Amazon’s initial growth (the company goes from $0 to $1 billion in sales in what seems like twenty pages), Stone’s writing vividly expresses Bezos’s early understanding of the Internet’s potential and ruthless drive toward a digital future.

MFA vs NYC by n+1 –

The latest essay collection from n+1 polls its various contributors for their thoughts on one of modern literature’s major questions: Is it better to go to grad school or work your way up through industry. In this case “grad school” means an MFA program and “industry” is the New York City publishing houses. This basic premise can really be expanded to other industries and the perspectives provided here could be helpful to anyone, not just aspiring writers.

Coders at Work by Peter Seibel –

I believe a good way to learn about a field of study is to read candid discussions between experts in said field. Coders at Work is a collection of Seibel’s interviews with some of the premier coders and computer scientists of our time. Despite being occasionally too technical for a casual reader, it contains so much wisdom for programming and project management that I’d still probably recommend it to non-programmers. Google whatever terms in the book you don’t understand.

The Secret Club that Runs the World: Inside the Fraternity of Commodity Traders by Kate Kelly –

After three years of interviews, tracking down quiet, powerful people worldwide, and learning an opaque industry, Kelly entertains and educates on a sector of the financial markets that, until recently, has largely escaped public scrutiny.

Five Stars:

Aristotle and an Aardvark go to Washington by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein –

If you’ve ever heard a politician speak and considered if assassinating a political figure would qualify as a public good, then this is the book for you. From the authors of the equally brilliant “Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar”, “Aristotle and an Aardvark” teaches the philosophical concepts of logical fallacies with examples from United States politicians. I wish Cathcart and Klein could teach every academic subject. We’d all learn a lot more if our teachers were better jokesters.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin –

Few books I’ve ever read are as immediately impactful as Born Standing Up is within the first thirty pages. Martin, once atop the comedy business, opens his old wounds to readers, vividly teaching us the struggles required to earn greatness. Martin spends the majority of the story on the destitution of his twenties, only to quickly and quietly cover the lightning bolt that was his rise to fame. Few stories are as succinctly honest as Born Standing Up.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz –

Former entrepreneur and current venture capitalist Ben Horowitz compiles the lessons he’s learned in his business career. I particularly enjoyed this book more than most business books I read because of his very honest approach. I agree with his fundamental message: Every company is unique, which is what makes business difficult, so to claim there is one roadmap to business success for everyone is naive. All an advice-giver can give is personal anecdotes and lessons learned. That’s exactly what Horowitz does here, and it’s appreciated.

What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman –

I’ve yet to read something by Feynman which wasn’t brilliant. This particular collection of Feynman tales packs more emotional punch than most of his previous collections. The essay about his wife’s early death (from which the title is pulled) is the most heartbreaking story I’ve ever read. For the intellectuals, half the book is dedicated to Feynman’s fascinating work uncovering the cause of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. It concludes with his essay, “The Value of Science”, which should be made mandatory reading for all middle school science students. If I had read it at age 14, I’d have probably become a physicist. I’d have certainly become a better person.

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss –

Biographers have perhaps the hardest jobs of all those who consider themselves writers. It must be tough to balance years of journalism (hunting down sources, engaging people in interviews over topics that have long since occurred, foraging for faded photographs from lost eras) and bring the research into a compelling story equal in size and scope to fictional novels. The biographer is aided by one reality: Often, truth is stranger than fiction.

Every winter, tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people witness the Super Bowl. Every year, the winner of that championship game hoists what’s called “the Lombardi Trophy”. Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winner, opens up the Vince Lombardi legend with a level of journalistic research I have not read since All the President’s Men. Lombardi is both humanized and mythologized simultaneously. The highest praise I can give Maraniss and “When Pride Still Mattered” is that it takes a seemingly simple idea, the biography of a football coach, and use it as a piece of glass: a lens through which we can see the past and a mirror in which we see our present. Regardless of how you look at it, the image is never as clear as we want it to look.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb –

A significant achievement in modern thought. In his magnum opus, Taleb culminates a lifetime of research and his unique insight into his concept of “antifragility”. Without explaining it in depth here, the book demonstrates experimentally, mathematically, and philosophically how systems and societies should be designed to improve from stress. Bending and growing from adversity, rather than breaking like so many things seem to do in our current era. Taleb commits a sort of philosophical biomimicry, taking most of his ideas either from his observations of nature (of the human variety and otherwise) or expanding upon past thinkers who did the same. If I could install a mandatory philosophy course into the school system, this would be required reading.

Best Book Read in the First Half of 2014:

Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life by John Bogle –

Bogle, the founder asset management firm The Vanguard Group, has written a manifesto for reforming the moral fiber of the United States. It’s important for those who have greatly benefited from the financial system to come out and say that it’s broken and should be smaller. He does that and more by extrapolating the problems of the financial sector as caused by a systemic breakdown in how our society conducts business at large. The chapters are short, to the point, and data supported. The chapter titles (such as “Too Much Cost, Not Enough Value” and “Too Much Business Conduct, Not Enough Professional Conduct”) should be printed out on a poster. Short of hanging that on your bedroom wall, you should at least read this book.

Books Read in the Second Half of 2013

My reviews of books read during my first year in Chicago was my most popular post yet (as measured by email responses from friends). So I’ve decided to make it a semi-annual tradition.

Once again, the books are sorted from worst-to-best on a one-to-five scale, with my highest rated book given special recognition at the end.

Note: The books marked with an asterisk are ones I read in the previous time period but forgot to include in the last post because they were e-books.

Two Stars:

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: Yes, we get that you were able to attend Harvard and were lucky enough to work for Larry Summers *and* your husband also runs a multi-hundred million dollar business. And I don’t hold any of that against Sandberg personally, but the book reads as, “Let me show you what my life, as a successful woman, is like,” instead of, “Here is how any woman can achieve her goals.” Any lessons for women are reworded cliches with “Lean In” being a 21st century brush up of “Speak Up More” which teachers have been telling the shy kid in class for decades. Men will get the most out of it. It’s a good reminder of our cognitive biases and weaknesses when dealing with women. You can get the same effect from older feminist writings.

The Games That Changed the Game by Ron Jaworski: I only give this a two star rating because its for a very specific niche and I don’t feel it even nails its topic. Jaworski’s book is, like his ESPN commentary, a breakdown of the game film from the seven most influential games in NFL history (in his opinion). Even if you’re a football junkie, you will question his choices for the first and last chapter (a Sid Gilman game all about the rushing attack and the 2001 Patriots-Rams Super Bowl focusing on defending Marshall Faulk). I did enjoy the exclusive interviews with players from these games across many generations and Jaworski’s individual play analysis, it’s only a portion of a book aimed for diehard football fans.

Three Stars:

*The Return of the Great Depression by Theodore “Vox Day” Beale: Beale is an economic crank, but that doesn’t mean he’s without good points (as tends to be the case with cranks). His most convincing chapters debunk a Paul Krugman article nearly line-by-line and establish how the Federal Reserve has failed to reduce bank failures and financial crises. He hurts his Austrian arguments with his poorly thought out sexist policy recommendations and over-referencing of the inaccurate ShadowStats site.

Catching The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort: Considering I had read the first book sophomore year of college (I suspect I was one of the few students in 2010 who did) and the Scorcese movie was being released, I felt it appropriate to read the sequel. Belfort maintained the outrageous writing, both in style and substance, that was present in the first book and displayed in the movie. It’s not a book about finance, it’s about one man’s descent into madness in some of the most destructive, off-the-charts ways possible, and the FBI’s attempts to pin him.

Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins: In this memoir, Perkins explains his life as an “Economic Hitman”, a consultant hired by governments and corporations to convince third-world nations to borrow money from the first-world at indenturing terms. Given the premise, I was hoping for a real expose. Sadly, Perkins is light both on technical economic details and gritty drama. This does leave the book as a quick, thin read. It pairs well with Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” which I previously reviewed.

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay: I’d been hearing from friends and media outlets alike that this book was a must-read for young adults in my generation (whatever that means). Given the attention the book got upon release and Dr. Jay’s credentials, I was expecting something more substantive. Defining Decade still contains useful, relatable anecdotes for those in their 20s who are searching for happiness and meaning. I’m just disappointed most of the science was absent.

Four Stars:

*The Launchpad: Inside Y Combinator by Randall Stross: New York Times journalist Stross was able to get exclusive access to the inner workings of Y Combinator, the revolutionary startup investment firm, as it led one of its famed startup “batches” through a summer. The book is a quick read as Stross jumps through the all the startup stages in his three months in Mountain View. It’s length is a great strength, as every page brings the wisdom of Paul Graham and company to readers considering starting a company of their own.

*Effective Programming: More Than Writing Code by Jeff Atwood: A collection of essays by the creator of the Coding Horror, Atwood covers a wide breadth of technology topics including software testing, programmer hiring, project management, and application security. Given his years of enterprise experience, co-founding Stack Overflow, and still maintaining his popular blog, every essay in this book is worth digesting and re-reading.

Without Their Permission by Alexis Ohanian: Written by the cofounder of Reddit, Without Their Permission is a half biography/half pep talk about the origins of Reddit and the modern internet ecosystem. Alexis writes with a sense of humor, a clear understanding of how lucky he is, and explains the work he put in to be in that position. While anyone who is familiar with Reddit’s history will find the first half a bit redundant (or anyone familiar with SOPA will feel the same way about the second half), Without Their Permission covers enough varied material that any reader will get something new out of it while enjoying Alexis’s storytelling.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford: This introduction to economic thinking meanders aimlessly from topic to topic, but doesn’t feel aimless. Despite not providing much depth for those with a pre-existing background in economics and seemingly disorganized chapter structure, I would recommend this book as a primer on practical applications of economics to those unfamiliar with the field.

The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller: This high level explanation of the research into animal group behaviors is readable, understandable, and educational. Miller accomplishes the tough task of simplifying complex flocking and biomimicry research, presenting its real-world applications, and keeping a steady pace for the casual reader.

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Taleb: It seems kind of narcissistic to write a collection of your own one-liners and publish it. Since most people aren’t as insightful as Taleb, he gets away with it. It’s cheap, takes an hour to read, and the most wisdom you can get in that time for that price.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis: Lewis’s second sports work after Moneyball and a popular movie starring Sandra Bullock, he continues to tell the stories of unsung heroes with outsized impact on their fields (in this case, a literal one). What the movie left out of Lewis’s book is the entire half dedicated to explaining why Michael Oher’s position at left tackle became so valuable in the NFL. The Blind Side reminds one that everyone has potential, especially those with the most unappreciated skills in the most overlooked places.

Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen: Cowen, one of my favorite economists and author of “The Great Stagnation”, presents his latest thesis: The future of the American economy is a class divide driven by an individual’s aptitude for complementing computers. Programmers and those with fantastic soft skills which are difficult to quantify will be at the top of the income scale, leaving everyone else competing for minimum wage service work. The book meanders while making its point in the middle chapter and goes increasingly off-topic. It is saved by the final chapter “The New Social Contract” which takes his thesis to its practical societal conclusions. Cowen has said he hopes it reads like a history book of the future and I hope more social scientists attempt this presentation style.

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh: Recommended by Twitter creator Jack Dorsey as his manual for leadership, this posthumously published guidebook lays bare the thoughts of a football legend. Walsh led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowls and two more under his self-appointed successor during the 80s and early 90s. His core philosophy of teaching his employees/players to rise to his “Standard of Performance” can transfer into any workplace. Although the book is just a tad repetitive, the central thesis mixed with Walsh’s personal stories from coaching one of the NFL’s greatest and longest dynasties makes it recommended reading.

Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis by James Rickards: The book for understanding how currencies work and the dangers of mismanaging them on a global scale. The book is split into two parts: First, a history of the past 100 years of fiat currencies; Second, Rickards’s projections on the future of international monetary policy. These discussions are centered around the concern that countries are increasingly using currency manipulation as economic warfare. This should be read by everyone in a position of political and economic power who decides these very issues.

Five Stars:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Lowell Bair: The 2002 Kevin Reynolds film rendition of this classic is one of my favorite movies. I was concerned that seeing the movie first would spoil my view of the book. Luckily, major plot lines are significantly different enough to keep the two separate in my mind. Monte Cristo is the definitive revenge story. I am not surprised it has survived for centuries.

*Bubble Logic: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Bull by Cliff Asness: Billionaire founder of AQR Capital Management wrote this unpublished-book-turned-long-academic-paper in August 2000 as the dot-com bubble was crashing. Asness eviscerates the Internet bulls using simple financial mathematics. As someone who is a believer in the potential of internet companies, Asness provides the logical, sobering truth to the Silicon Valley-ites who misunderstand market realities. A must-read for value investors or anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the stock market.

Fate of the States by Meredith Whitney: I’ve already written another blog post based on the information in this book. Whitney and her research team have compiled damning evidence on the widespread mismanagement of state and municipal governments on both coasts of this country. While her calls against these municipalities might be criticized for early timing, her broader points can not and should not be ignored by politicians and the broader citizenry.

Best Book Read in the Second Half of 2013:

Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by David Einhorn: While Fate of the States, my runner-up for this position, is an easier and more relevant read for most, Fooling All of the People was too memorable to not have the top spot. Hedge fund manager Einhorn documents his multi-year fight against the fraudulent Allied Capital. Einhorn clearly walks through how white-collar criminals, Wall Street banks, Harvard professors, government agencies, and shady accountants conspired to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers and individual investors. Compared to writings about the 2008 financial crisis, Fooling All of the People is a personal tale of a small group of individuals investigating the very corrupt corporate systems that preceded the crisis and have really existed throughout history. This is a book that will leave you a less naive person. That feeling alone is worth the price of the paperback.