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.

Books Read During a Year in Chicago

The last week of July marked my one year of living in Chicago. When friends visit my apartment, they tend to notice two things: The well-stocked bar my roommates and I maintain, as well as my massive book collection I leave laying in piles on my bedroom floor. Since I spend most of my free time reading paperbacks on a wide variety of topics, and people are always asking me about what I’ve read lately, I thought a quick review of every book I’ve read since I’ve moved to Chicago would be the best way to get all my book recommendations out to as wide an audience as possible.

I’ve ranked the books on a scale of five stars with five being the highest. At the end, I single out one book. Like any good article, I’ll start from the worst books I’ve read in the past year. If there is any book in particular you want to know more about, definitely reach out to me. I could write a whole essay on any of these.

One Star:

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand:

I started this Ayn Rand 1000-page magnum opus while still in school and didn’t finish it until October 2012. The story features some great plot points, but is so painfully overwritten that I would not expect anyone to stick with it through to the end. It aims for an epic message yet struggles under the weight of the over-beaten dead-horse ideas it carries. Rand is supposed to be a writer, but her adjective abuse is appalling. Every other sentence reads: “The confident executive confidently gazed over the factory as a confident dictator looks over his country.” It’s simply too long and boring to recommend to anyone who doesn’t know what they’re getting into. If you’re looking for an interesting novel, there are others below I’d recommend. If you’re looking for a different perspective on philosophy or economics, read Hayek or Nietzsche.

Two Star:

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins:

Probably considered the atheist’s bible, the God Delusion failed to answer the unanswerable. If you’re an atheist, the book probably doesn’t add anything you hadn’t already considered. If you’re a theist, then you can undermine the entire book by pointing out it does not provide an answer to the cosmological problem of infinite regress and the universe’s origins.

The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker:

More like the Inessential Drucker (the jokes write themselves people). Peter Drucker is supposed to be a management expert. All I found in here was a lot of hand-wavy unscientific platitudes. The book is only redeemed by the fact that, since Drucker has been writing for half a century, it contains some interesting historical anecdotes.

Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand:

An Ayn Rand non-fiction book. I have no real complaints about the book. It contains a lot of solid rebuttals to socialism. However, nearly everything in it is better written elsewhere. Anyone who reads this would probably be better served reading Hayek and von Mises, whom Rand frequently cites.

Three Star:

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson:

Not the first Steve Jobs biography, but probably the best. Given the hype and exclusive access to Jobs himself, I was expecting a little more insight from Isaacson. Still a solid read and recommended to anyone who doesn’t know the background of the Apple cofounder.

Models Behaving Badly by Emanuel Derman:

I loved Emanuel Derman’s first book. Models Behaving Badly is an interesting mix of finance and physics short explanatory stories. Those looking for insights into flawed financial models will be underwhelmed.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein:

Naomi Klein does a tremendous job researching the dark side of the military-industrial complex and its self-serving nature. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in government corruption. The book loses me when she tries to use economic terms and butchers their meaning like the corporatists she’s denouncing. Clearly written by a journalist, not an economist, but she’s a good one.

How to Relax Without Getting the Axe by Stanley Bing:

Stanley Bing, my favorite author, manages to make me laugh again with this guide to getting paid without working. Compared to his novels and other business humor stories, this one is relatively thin.

Four Star:

The Mythical Man Month by Frederick Brooks:

This collection of essays is a must-read for anyone looking to manage large technology projects. A little dated (most of its lessons have been adopted by modern management), but for a book that’s forty years old, it still has a lot to teach its readers.

Boomerang by Michael Lewis:

Michael Lewis followed up The Big Short with this look into the brokenness of modern government budgets, particularly in Europe. Like all his other works, it’s fantastically written and reveals the complex problems of the world in simple language to the layman. My only issue with this book is that it’s thinner than most of his other books, lacking the deep research that makes his older books must-reads.

Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson:

Almost shouldn’t qualify for this list, since it’s a textbook on how to raise venture capital. Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson do make the potentially dry material inviting and usable.

Who’s Your City by Richard Florida:

Professor Richard Florida provides an original perspective on what drives economic growth and personal happiness. His area of focus? Where you live. An educational mix of self-help feel-goodness and academic research helps individuals answer what he considers one of life’s major questions (where should you live?)

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse:

Herman Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. This book is cited as the primary reason. Set a few centuries into the future, a society of intellectuals exist in their own reclusive nation slowly reveals its weaknesses to the one man willing to think differently. At the same time, Hesse reveals himself to be as intelligent a writer as I have ever read. This doesn’t reach five stars as I wish there were aspects of the book that were explored further. Unlike Atlas Shrugged, this story certainly could have been longer and would have lost none of its luster.

Five Star:

What We Should Have Known by n+1:

This roundtable transcript by the writers of literary magazine N+1 is an enlightening window into the college experiences of now full-time writers. I bought it because I had read some articles by the staff and was impressed. The books premise is also intriguing (printing in book form the transcript of casual conversations between friends/coworkers). If you’re at all interested in our education system, literature, or the humanities, this quick read is easily worth its $9 price tag.

Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin:

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book is probably the best (and thickest) retelling of the behind-the-scenes events which shaped the financial crisis during August and September 2008. Although it covers only a small portion of time, Sorkin’s detailed depictions of the personalities and stakes involved makes it a captivating must-read.

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw:

This is the definitive biography of one of the greatest businessmen in world history. David Nasaw went to great lengths to fact check everything, not even taking Carnegie’s own autobiography at face value. The result is tremendous insight into a uniquely gifted mind and the Industrial Revolution in which he thrived.

Dark Pools by Scott Patterson:

I’m biased toward loving anything finance related. Dark Pools deserves extra applause for providing a balanced perspective on the history of electronic financial markets. This story highlights the early pioneers of the field and their idealistic perspective on how markets should work, and how this utopia was corrupted into the broken systems we have today.

The Management Myth by Matthew Stewart:

This is the book I had been hoping to find for years. An ex-consultant lays waste to all the bullshit spun by the major management consulting firms. This enticing blend of historical research and anecdotes kept me immersed for all 300 hundred pages, leaving me with copious notes and confirmations of my biggest fears about how much of the corporate world operates.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis:

I was a little late to this party, considering the Brad Pitt movie was already on DVD by the time I got to reading the book. Nonetheless, it did not disappoint. The typical Lewis research and wit are present. The baseball theme allows this story to be the most welcoming of his books to a wider audience than his standard financial fare.

Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy:

This is the canonical history of hacker culture from the 1950s through the 1980s. Published in 1984, it’s a must read for anyone in the computer industry who wants to learn from their forebearers.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka:

I had heard Kafka did most of his writing in the evenings after getting home from his day job pushing paper for an insurance company. His writing reflects his drab existence in surreal ways. Anyone working an office job will relate to his surreal stories.

The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb:

Nassim Taleb is one of the preeminent thinkers of our time. He admittedly isn’t explaining a whole lot that’s new knowledge. What he accomplishes is bringing old philosophical concepts into the modern age, applying them to concrete issues we face today, and then uses these principles to project into the future how people will behave. The fact that this book was published in 2007 predicting a financial crisis should be reason enough to read it.

Best Book I’ve Read in the Past Year:

Indecent Exposure by David McClintick:

One of my top three books of all time is Barbarians at the Gate. In its introduction, the authors credit Indecent Exposure as inspiring business journalists for generations to turn extraordinary business stories into gripping novels. Indecent Exposure is a hefty, 500 page tale of Wall Street and Hollywood. I finished it in a week. It sits in my personal pantheon of “Greatest Books Ever Read”. McClintick dives into the underbelly of two notoriously ego-driven industries and doesn’t surface for air for the length of the novel. When you hit what you think is the climax only 200 pages in, you realize that you’re in for a story grander than anticipated. And it’s non-fiction. I give this book the highest possible recommendation to anyone who has learned how to read.