JCL Blog

Book Review: I Must Say by Martin Short

Martin Short's new memoir is a treasure and even if you are not a big fan, his book is worth the time -- and the audio book even better. It is a risky proposition for an author to read for his audiobook, unless the author is Martin Short (or Steve Martin or Billy Crystal). 

Marty has had a full life and he does a masterful job of weaving together the comedy and the tragedy of it.  His life has been full of both.  Losing his older brother and both of his parents early might have given him the grace to suffer through the other hardships in his path with a strength of character that I hope to have when life hits hard.

Martin Short by anyone's measure is a successful comedian.  He got there by measuring himself.  He has developed a nine point assessment that he self administers regularly. I am not sure of the dates exactly, but I would guess that he developed his before Steven Covey's 7 Habits came on the scene.  

For me though, it is the quality of his relationships with family and friends that makes the ultimate measure.  From poker with  Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Tom Hanks, the night before trips to the colonscopy doctor, to late night talks around the campfire with Nancy, Martin Short invests in his relationships.  A truly successful man.

Book Review: The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Despite the many tellings, this is still a great story. Even though we have all read about the people who brought computing to life and the people who made the most of it, Walter Isaacson tells the story again very well. Somehow he threads between the tedium of an often told tale, and the urge to skip the detail because it is an old story. He gives us all of the detail and then some and it does not seem tired at all.

All of the familiar names are there from Lovelace, Babbage, and Turing, to Gates, Allen, Jobs and Woz. In between he brings out some that we have not heard from as much including Atanasoff and Grace Hopper. While engrossed in this account of the coming of the information age, there were a couple of things that I wanted to remember:

  1. New things take a long time to happen: Zuckerberg is really just finishing a job that Stuart Brand started.
  2. Moore's Law is still going and makes yesterday's crazy idea possible tomorrow.
  3. AI is never going to happen, but that does not mean that computers will stop getting smarter, its just that they will not get smart in a human way.
  4. The new new thing becomes a thing when all of the parts have been invented.

For real professional reviews, here are the big names:

Washington Post

 Wall Street Journal

New York Times 

Book Review: Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

I met Michael Lewis when he was on his The Big Short book tour and I asked him why John Gutfruend would meet with him at all?  You may recall that Gutfruend was the guy that took Solomon Brothers public in the '80s, which was like giving all of the Wall Street piranhas steroids and testosterone supplements.  At the time Michael Lewis worked at Solomon Brothers and he was so affected by the way the industry gleefully devoured its own customers that he left the firm and wrote Liar's Poker.  Thirty years later, and it would take at least that long for anyone to get over begin skewered the way John Gutfruend was in Liar's Poker, Michael Lewis called him up and asked him to lunch!  And he went!  And Michael Lewis wrote all about it in The Big Short.  

Anyway, the answer Michael Lewis gave me was illuminating, he said (and I am paraphrasing) that John Gutfruend was incapable of understanding how people outside of Wall Street perceived him and his industry.  The converse to his incapacity, is the ability to understand what is going on inside an industry when viewed from the outside.  It is just that understanding that makes Michael Lewis so fun to read.  Time and again he pulls back the curtain and reveals the inner workings of very complicated, mostly financial, businesses in a way that educates and entertains all at once.  Clearly, I am a Michael Lewis fan.  I eagerly anticipated the release of Flash Boys last week and read it right away.  So if you don't like him or you want a balanced review, just skip to the reviews I linked to at Slate or The Guardian.  

This time around the fun of reading the book was followed up by the fun of reading all of his detractors right after.  The Wall Street Journal is on the attack and every day comes out with another effort to discredit Lewis. On April 2 they published a piece by money managers saying that your money is safe (with them!), and that Lewis is pumping up IEX for personal gain, and on 4/3 the editorial board said Lewis was just selling books, and yesterday they tried to get the blame to stick to the regulators.  (see my twitter feed for links to all of these articles)

Felix Salmon on Slate did a pretty good job, but dismisses the book as just more of the same from Michael Lewis.  John Naughton at The Guardian delivered the most balanced review agreeing that in fact front running is bad and manages not to get sucked into the argument that we should be happy that there is less corruption on Wall Street now than there used to be.

Just about every Lewis detractor takes the angle that high frequency traders do front run the market (make risk free return by profiting from the prior knowledge of investor's intent in the time between when they know what the investor wants, and the time the trade is placed), but that they front run less than they used to.  Good point.  It is getting harder and harder to skim money off of each trade, but at the same time it is getting easier and easier to do so systematically with the aid of computers.  Who knows if the aggregate skimming is more or less than before.

I cannot speak for Michael Lewis, but if I had to guess I would say he is mostly aiming to again expose the culture of Wall Street and how everyone considers the customer a fool and easy prey.  Just like when he was at Solomon Brothers in the 80s.  

Book Review: Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez

I had the good fortune to drive back and forth across the state last weekend and while doing so I finished the audiobook version of Kill Decision.  As with his first two books, Daemon and Freedom, Kill Decision is one of those books you want to race through, but also that you don’t want to end.  It is not so much that Suarez is a great writer - but he sure invents great plot lines and does great research.  

Here are the things I want to remember from the book:

 

  1. We should pay more attention to the ongoing debate about drones
  2. We are our own worst enemy, and going forward it will be harder and harder to figure out who to point our military at
  3. Animals, in this case ants and ravens, are much smarter than we think
  4. Collective Impact is something I want to think about more.

 

On that last point.  Collective Impact is a way to think about large and fragmented participants working in a semi-coordinated way to accomplish big things.  That is my definition, I am sure there are better ones.  The Weaver Ants in the book are capable of amazing things, unfortunately mostly destructive but nevermind that.  While these ants and the drones in the book seem quite evil, it is not hard to think about how a properly designed and implemented system could bring about incredible social change -- for good.

Other reviews. (you may recall that my “book reviews” are really my notes about the book.  I know there are much better reviewers out there).  In this case I only found one good one.  Not sure why the regular papers have not discovered Daniel Suarez.  Maybe when he gets called to testify in DC about how he knew drones were a bad thing...

James Floyd Kelly in Wired: This is a very good review with a conversation with the author at the end.  I guess that is the good thing about not quite being discovered yet.


My Reading List: 2011

I got into a conversation about the books I read last year recently and that has inspired me to make a list.  So here you go:  The books I read last year. 

Actual Printed Books

  1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
  2. Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
  3. Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72

These books were not available on Audible or the Kindle otherwise I would have bought them digitally.  They are all interesting reads and in particular, the volume about the election of Richard Nixon was a great reminder that politics is not more screwed up now than it ever was.

Kindle eBooks

  1. Triple by Ken Follett:  A great story about how Israel may have gotten the bomb in the 70s.
  2. Lie Down with Lions by Ken Follett:  If you want to understand what conditions are like in Afghanistan – this is a good way to do it.
  3. One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com by Richard Brandt:  Short because the story is still being written, but good background if you are planning on meeting Bezos.
  4. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson:  My review here.  No question the most inspiring book I read.  Made me want to be "insanely great" too.
  5. Public Parts by Jeff Jarvis:  OK book by the author of “What Would Google Do?” – which was better
  6. Paradise by Larry McMurtry:  Re-read this one, a great autobiographical story about a trip to the south pacific.
  7. Reamde by Neal Stephenson:  A real page turner and good way to get the feel for China.  Like many of his books, it is long and may not have needed to be.
  8. The Garden of Eden by Ernsest Hemingway:  Another re-read.  This is one of the better posthumously published works. 
  9. The fortune ant the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Prahalad:  Did not make it all of the way through this book, but a good reminder of how big the rest of the world is.
  10. In the Plex by Steven Levy:  A great look what everyone means when they say Google is “engineering driven”.
  11. Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn:  A wonderful book about how to constructively encourage your kids to do great things.
  12. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card:  Classic sci fi that I should have read a long time ago.
  13. The Frugal Superpower by Michael Madelbaum:  This is a must read for anyone who thinks we are at a crossroads.
  14. Common as Air by Hyde Lewis:  In the same vein as Free by Chris Anderson.  Essentially a primer to the new economy.
  15. Changing the game by David Edery: A good manual showing how to adapt computer gaming concepts to the real world. 
  16. The New Language of Marketing 2.0 by Sandy Carter:  Sandy Carter is a Maven at IBM and this book shows how big companies are looking at new media.
  17. Microsoft 2.0 by Mary Jo Foley:  Mary Jo Foley follows Microsoft for ZDnet and this book lists some of her thoughts about how Microsoft could/should reinvent itself
  18. You are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier:  One of our renaissance men gives a look into the good and the dangerous about the digital age. 
  19. Work Hard. Be Nice. By Jay Mathews:  A must read for anyone thinking about our education system with a focus on the incredible work by KIPP.

Audio Books

  1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides:  Another good novel by the author of Middlesex.  Great images, not really uplifting.
  2. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald:  Thought it would be fun to have this classic on audio.
  3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald : ditto
  4. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz by F. Scott Fitzgerald: ditto – what a story this one is too.  If you have never read it – invest the hour.
  5. I Live in the Future and Here is How it Works by Nick Bilton:  The title is arrogant, but the book is really quite good.
  6. Macrowikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony D Williams:  I loved the first book, this one I only got half way through.
  7. Boomerang by Michael Lewis:  Of course my favorite book of the year is by Michael Lewis.  All of the episodes were great but I found the Iceland part to be the best.  My review here.
  8. The Information by James Gleick:  Quite dry, but if you are interested data, databases, privacy, new media – it is worth the effort to read this one.
  9. Bossypants by Tina Fey:  As my sister says, every so often you need some candy.  This is right up there with Born Standing Up.
  10. The Greater Journey by David McCullough: I love David McCullough, I think my life is too complicated to take the time to really think about Americans in Paris 150 years ago.
  11. On China by Henry Kissinger:  Boy did this guy take good notes!  A great reference book and it is not too hard to see around the bigger than life ego.
  12. The Social Animal by David Brooks:  I generally like David Brooks on the NewsHour and in his column more than in his books.  This one is good, but the fictionalization just did not work.  He sure has read a lot of brain science stuff though!  My review here.
  13. Dangerously Funny by David Bianculli:  A super story about the Smothers Brothers 3 years on CBS and all of the battles – if you are into the late 60s early 70s part of our history – this is a really good book.
  14. The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick:  Who knew the history of calculus could be so interesting.  I have probably talked about this book more than just about any other book I read in 2011 – well, except maybe Boomerang.
  15. How the West Was Lost by Dambisa Moyo:  I did not make it more than a quarter into this.  By then she had made her point and it did not seem like continuing was going to bring any greater insights.
  16. All the Devils are Here by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera:  Good fodder for the fire of the financial crisis and those who caused it (us!).
  17. Griftopia by Matt Taibbi:  Great book about how Wall Street is sucking the life out of our country.  No problem figuring out where the author stands.  

So there you have it.  39 books, 3 printed, and the rest about evenly split betweent the Kindle and Audible.   There were about 10 other books that I bought but did not read including some manuals that I just looked stuff up in.  I did not think a book should count if I did not take the time to get at least a quarter of the way through it.  There were two books that I got on Audible and the Kindle.  I did not list those twice, but that is an interesting study on whether these digital books are going to increase book sales or not.  I would much rather pay $10 each for an audio book and ebook (for a total of $20) instead of $20 for one printed hardback.  

Now if Amazon could just figure out how to sync them so when I open my Kindle it goes right to where I left off in my car on the audio book -- that would be amazing.

Book Review: Boomerang by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite authors. His magic is the ability to rapidly become an insider on a subject, without losing the perspective of an outsider.  He is an Earthling that sees the world through the eyes of a Martian.  Or a bond trader that sees Wall Street through the eyes of main street.  His latest work, Boomerang, takes us on a tour of what he is calling the new third world.  This is great irony capitalizing on the recent fashion of using the term “developing nation” instead of the term “third world”.  It is no longer correct to count the worlds.  Counting or not, we have leap frogged in the backward direction - over the developing nations.  His tour of countries worse off than the third world starts in Iceland, and goes to Ireland, Greece, Spain, Germany, and well, California. 

The recurring theme is examining what people do when told they are in a room full of money and:  “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” It’s a great mental picture that takes all of a half second to absorb.  Lewis makes it even more powerful by applying it to nations.  “Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish…”

The section on Germany was particularly interesting as Lewis investigated that culture’s fascination with human waste, which made them particularly vulnerable to the toxic waste products being packaged by our people on Wall Street.  It will be a long time before anybody anywhere in the world ever trusts Americans again.  WMD + Abu Ghraib + Goldman Sachs = Americans are liars. Our reputation could not be repaired even if we had the money to do another Marshall Plan.  Looks like we are going to be sewing Canadian flags on our backpacks for many years to come.

There have been many great reviews of the book.  Here are links to a few of them:

NY Times:

The Guardian:  

Forbes

Washington Post

Seeking Alpha:  

As I do with many books, I listened to this one on Audible.  It was another great production, this time read by Dylan Baker.

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

In 1990 Michael Lewis wrote his now famous book: Liars Poker. His intent was to expose the bad behavior of people on Wall Street and help to bring an end to the steady stream of our best and brightest wasting their abilities in a parasitic business. To his surprise, his book just added fuel to the fire and all of these years later we still lose bright and motivated and capable minds to the pit of greed.

This 571 page book reads like a 200 page book because it is well researched and well written and the subject is familiar to all of us. I read it on my iPad -- a device I did not know I needed until after I got it and that I spend several hours a day with now. In fact, I am writing this review on my iPad.

It will be interesting to see how history views Walter Isaacson's latest master work: Steve Jobs. Of course everyone is talking about it and I have put some links to other reviews below. The common thread in the commentary about the book is to marvel at the fact that even though his own life was shaped by his adoption, Steve Jobs was still able to abandon his own daughter. The barefoot thing, the diet thing, and the personal hygiene thing also seemed to get a fair amount of attention.

To me the biggest question posed by the book is whether Steve Jobs was successful despite his narcissism, or because of it. This is the central question because a great many young entrepreneurs are right now reading the book and getting ready to emulate Steve Jobs. I hope they are learning to operate at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology, and to have an uncompromising focus on design and quality. I fear they may be encouraged to put themselves in the absolute center of their universe and make everyone else feel less than adequate. Will this book encourage the next generation to belittle co-workers, send food back at restaurants, and put themselves before their own children?

I have said before that I believe Steve Jobs was the best CEO we have ever seen. There is no question that he created amazing products and a company that will not only survive, but will thrive for years -- just by coasting on the lead he built before is death.
The pain he inflicted on those that loved him was also of epic scale. At the end, he knew he was dying, and even then, he could not connect with his daughters. I hope that legacy is forgotten.

Here are my take aways from the book:

  1. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is real and Steve Jobs had it.
  2. A passion for simplicity and quality has to start at the top.
  3. Leadership makes a big difference.

Here are other reviews of the book:

I hope that 20 years from now we look back and find many companies built by young people that were inspired by Steve's passion for great products and design. It would be even better if they learned how to do that by building up the people around them.

Book Review: Social Animal by David Brooks

I like David Brooks when he appears on the News Hour every week with Jim Lehrer and Mark Shields.  He regularly delivers insights I would not have on my own and in a way that is kind and even handed.  I also enjoy reading his column in the NY Times.  He has a writing style that draws me in and delivers a payload of quality analysis.

Somehow all of the things I like about David Brooks just don't make it into his books.  I thought the idea for his 2007 book, Bobos in Paradise, was great:  to describe the elites of the generation after the yuppies in a way that the generation before the yuppies would understand.  Unfortunately the satirical tone was thick enough that I just could not make it all of the way through.

I thought I would give him another try and recently read Social Animal.  Contrary to many of the not so flattering reviews, I did find it interesting and well presented.  My divergent opionion from that of the reviews in the NY Times, Forbes, and Salon, could be the result of my thinking of the book as an innovative way to present the mountains of research done for the book so that the reader could grasp the ideas.  As a work of non-fiction, the narrative of the two invented characters is much more bearable.

Here are the main themes I want to remember from the book:

 

  • There is plenty of research supporting the idea that there is something in between nature and nurture -- that in early life, the brain is being wired in a way that later will seem like hardwiring (nature), but in fact came from the environment (nurture).
  • The 90 percent of the brain that we don't use, as the saying goes, could be in charge of the show.
  • The crowning American achievement is upward social mobility -- and we have no idea how we achieve it.
  • Our culture has no idea what happiness is.

 

I still like David Brooks and I am glad I read the book.  It did give me some insights I would not have had otherwise.  It was a little sterile, so if you are looking for a real life counterbalance, here is my review of Life, Keith Richards autobiography.  I highly recommend it.

Book Review; Life by Keith Richards

I just finished reading Life by Keith Richards.  Actually, I had Johnny Depp read it to me via Audible.  An truly enjoyable experience even if it was hard to figure out why the voices were changing.  Who knows, Depp may have been doing a little method acting and using while reading.

I am not a giant Rolling Stones guy, in fact the only CD I own is 40 Licks.  But I am close to going out and buying the whole archive after experiencing Keith Richards through this book.  I have a list of real reviews below.  Here are my main take aways from this experience:

  1. Heroes:  Keith Richards has heroes, and lots of them.  He maintained his respect for venerable blues players like Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, and John Lee Hooker even after he eclipsed their accomplishments or discovered they were not all that he thought they would be.  Most any guy who had done what he has would eventually expect the tables to turn, just like another well known guy in the band, and start thinking he was the hero.  Not Keith Richards, at least not by my reading of Life
  2. Music:  Keith Richards loves music.  No way to avoid it in the book.  He cannot live without creating music.  What a passion.  Anyone who is wondering if they should follow their passion (instead of being practical) should read this book and just do what cannot be avoided.  He got to the point were he recreated the guitar as a 5 string instrument.  I am not deep into music, but to me that sounds like unrestrained thinking.
  3. Changing the World:  The Rolling Stones took black music, made in America, and played it back to Americans. These guys did as much for our civil rights movement as anyone.  Anyone.  Just crazy how they were colorblind.  Even more than that, they were sought out the black side of town.


Have a great time with this one.

 

Book Review: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

It is a formula I am naturally drawn to.  A young smart protagonist (or two) is up against the establishment with every reason to fail.  Add in a rich historical context with a hit of actual facts and I am hooked.  Ken Follett delivers a satisfying ride through the war to end all wars in the Fall of Giants.  I will leave the literary criticism to the experts at the New York Times and the Washington Post who have done an able job summarizing the story and pointing out the shortfalls of the author.  

Here are a few notes on what I took away from the book:

  • There were so many characters losing their virginity that I lost count.  I suppose this could be a metaphor about the nobles losing their innocence -- but sacrificing virgins to the dragon is likely a better parallel.  I don't remember there being so much sweaty smut in Pillars of the Earth or World Without End.  It makes me wonder if the author is compensating for something.
  • In Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, the guilds (labor unions) were standing in the way of progress, in this book the labor unions save the day.  This is an interesting switch.
  • The idea that big changes cook for a long time before they surprise their victims is quite applicable to our world today.  
  • There is an Ayn Randian thread that runs through these three books that I cannot quite put my finger on.  Clearly Ayn Rand would not have been a fan of the labor unions, but Billy, Ethel, Merthin, Caris, Jack and Aliena all have the genes of Howard Roark.

In reviewing Ken Follett's Wikipedia page today I realize that he has written an entire shelf of books since Pillars that I have never heard of.  I am going to have to check those out.  Hopefully it will take him a year or two to write the next 1,000 pages of this trilogy.

One other thing.  I listened to this book as an audiobook from Audible.  The narration by John Lee was incredible.  

Book Review: The Frugal Superpower by Michael Mandelbaum

We have spent all of our money and no longer have the ability to project power to all four corners of the globe.  We probably knew this was coming because it has happened to every world dominating superpower to date.  We inherited the role as the protector of the free world when the sun set on the British empire.  For a time we shared the responsibility with the USSR, the protector of the not free world, but on November 9, 1989 the job became all ours.

As Lord Acton pointed out in 1870, the Pope is not immune from fallibility.  If the Pope is not, we are probably not either.  Lord Acton is the guy that first said:  "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."  

Michael Mandelbaum does a very good job of surveying our current situation and placing it in the context of recent history.  His authority on the subject comes through in the writing as well as in his BIO (Yale, Cambridge, Harvard, professor at Johns Hopkins, 10 books...), he keeps to the point, and offers one simple solution:  Increase the tax on gas in the US.

Imagine that, we have a very complex problem that threatens our role on the world stage, and probably our quality of life, and it very well could be fixed with one easy to implement policy.  

Huh.

Here are some other reviews:

The Washington Times

The Guardian

Book Review: The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick

I quit using facebook in May.  I have also written many posts about facebook, and I have also promised not to rant about facebook anymore.  

Count this post as the point in time when I break all of those promises at once.  I have just turned my facebook account back on and will likely start using it again.  It is hard to argue against facebook's performance and usefulness.  

There is a conflict between the natural inclination to add friends (because everyone wants the biggest number of friends possible and nobody wants to be rude and unfriend people) and the simple fact that facebook is the most useful when your friends really are your friends.  Just about all of the anguish about facebook can be traced back to this issue.  David Kirkpatrick makes this point convincingly and I agree that if you want a good facebook experience, only accept friend invitations from people you want to share your personal life with.

Mark Zuckerberg does come off as a very smart, hard working, and self assured person.  Most importantly, he is aware that he has a great deal to learn and he has sought out some of the smartest people in the business and they have agreed to advise him.  From Marc Andreessen to Bill Gates to Steve Jobs, Mark is hanging out with some very smart people.

The book does not mention Donald Rumsfeld, but it would not surprise me if Mr. Zuckerberg has talked to him too.  Our former Secretary of Defense knew that embedded reporters need not be instructed to put a positive spin on the actions of the military units they are embedded with -- because the personal relationships formed during the action take care of that.  Same is true in this case.  The author had very good access to all parts of facebook, and by the time the book was finished, the cool aid had been consumed.  

Balanced account or not, the story is unbelievable.  From 0 to 1,400 employees and 500 million users in five years is a rocket ship ride an author could only dream of and Kirkpatrick does a good job of getting the story down on paper.  The early bidding war at a $1 billion valuation and Mark's ability to resist it -- absolutely a once in a lifetime thing for the author and his subject.

So whether or not you are a facebook fan, user, or detractor: this book is one you should read.  I still do think that facebook will eventually fail, because I think all closed systems will eventually fail.  Accordingly I will continue to invest most of my energy in building an identity outside of facebook.  But there is no denying facebook is useful and will be around for a long time.

One last note: I "read" the book by listening to it on Audible.  Unfortunately the author read it himself.  This is almost always a mistake -- if you can get the printed version -- do so.

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

It has been a while since I have written a book review.  I have still been reading, but have been on a literary side road that I was not so sure how to think about.  I have never really thought of myself as a science fiction reader or as a geek.  Turns out, I identify well with both!

The reconciliation between my real and imagined selves has kept me from sharing my thoughts about these books.  Clearly my brain is a complicated place! 

Last night I just finished re-reading Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson.  This book was written in 1999, so I will not reference other book reviews this time because there is a well formed Wikipedia page about the book here.

This book could be taking over the number one spot on my favorite books of all time list.  If so it would be displacing Clavell's Noble House.

I suppose Stephenson has an advantage because Cryptonomicon is mostly set in the Philippines, Seattle, and Eastern Washington -- all places I have lived.  I am fascinated with Hong Kong, but never lived there, and really my fascination is with the pre 1997 version.

The main ideas in Cryptonomicon are really resonating with me right now for some reason.  I know I liked the book a great deal the first time around, but for some reason it didn't strike me at that time to be even in the top ten.

Most of all, Stephenson is a great writer.  There are scores of sentences in this book that are worth reading over and over and his sense of style, and sense of humor, are evident throughout.  Althought he calls himself a science fiction writer, I think of him as more of a historical novelist. Either way he is way ahead of the few other science fiction writers I have read in terms of pure literary ability.

He reveals highly complex ideas bit by bit and causes the reader to gain an understanding of a concept while deeply engrossed in a story.  This is something Clavell also does very well.  Both Stephenson and Clavell write books that are so long that by the time you get to the end you can't even remember what you did not know at the beginning.  Drawn into a thousand pages of good storytelling the time just goes by and boom, out the other end you exit with a deep and insightful new perspective on how people think in China, or how computational capacity changed the world.  Conveying the idea that fairly early into WWII the Allies had broken both the Japanese codes and the German codes but knowingly sent troops into harms way for fear of exposing what they had accomplished is not a trivial exercise.  How valuable is knowledge or capability if it cannot be put into use?  Similarly, digging into monetary systems at a macro economic scale and their relationship to confidence, security, and ultimately power is a formidable dissection.   This part ends up occupying a similarly furnished room adjacent to the code breaking dilemma in that money you cannot spend has questionable value. 

The complex relationship between Americans and the people of the Philippines is also a topic with as many stratifications as the Grand Canyon.  Overcooked expectations, assumptions, promises, and disappointment have been deposited layer upon layer from Teddy Roosevelt's administration to the present day.  Stephenson's two main characters in the Philippines are of Filipino Americans, Douglas McArthur Shaftoe, born from a Filipina and an American Marine during WWII, and his daughter, America Shaftoe.  These names only start to tell the story of how our two countries will always have a close and involved relationship.

Since the first time I read Cryptonomicon I have started several other of Stepehson's books.  Unfortunately, I have not gotten all of the way through a single one.  So now I am going to go back to Quicksilver and see what happens.  

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Quants by Scott Patterson

This post really does not qualify as a book review.  My desire to know more about Wall Street is fading and while this is a very good book with both interesting personalities and good historical context - it is covering the same story. 

The whole thing boils down to this quote in the last chapter where Patterson makes an observation about the math geniuses at a fund raiser to benefit the teaching of math:

The quants in attendance somehow didn't think it ironic that their own profession amounted to a massive brain drain of mathematically gifted people who could otherwise find careers in developing more efficient cars, faster computers or better mousetraps, rather than devising clever methods to make money for the already rich.

Here are some other reviews

New York Times

Business Week

Here is an Article in The Wall Street Journal by Scott Patterson with a video interview where he says:

Really the genie is out of the bottle.  You are not going to be able to stop these guys.  I don't care what the Obama administration tries to do, they can crack down on the banks, but they [the quants] will just go outside of the banks.

One concept that Patterson captures often in the book is the pursuit of the "Truth" (caps are his) by the Quants.  Clearly some of them thought they actually had come to know the Truth.  Their rebound after the crash is only going to perpetuate their feelings of omnipotence.  Our bailing them out surely didn't help.

 

Book Review: The Box by Marc Levinson

Sure a book about the shipping container is a little obscure, but this really is a good story and I recommend it for anyone interested in economics or longing for a tale about creative destruction.

The life of Malcom McLean, a larger than life character from North Carolina who started with a single $120 truck and ended up building ships too big to go through the Panama Canal, is enough to fill at least one book.  

Any writer as dedicated to meticulous research as Levinson is exposed to the tug of war between tedium and readability.  Thankfully a great deal of the content can be found in the dozens of pages of notes and references at the end of the book, making the thing readable by both casual observers of economics and true students of the craft.

Here are my take aways:

  1. Dewitt Clinton changed everything by digging the Erie Canal and lowering the cost of moving a ton of goods from the heartland to New York from $100 to $6.  That meets the 10X improvement often set as the bar for real innovation, and the change brought about by containerization was 10X that.
  2. The laws of economics, specifically prices seeking equilibrium, might be slowed by labor unions and government regulation, but cannot be stopped.  Eventually the market will set the price.
  3. When it comes to building infrastructure, the market participants will likely get off to a slow start, then build like crazy to catch up, and invariably overshoot the mark.  From railroads to fiber optic cable, we have seen this over capacity from overly enthusiastic investment many other times.

Here are some other reviews:

Princeton University Press

Business Week

Here is a link to the book on Amazon.

Book Review: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis just put out another book about Wall Street - the topic that originally made him famous when he wrote Liars Poker in the '80s.  Readers of this blog know that I am already a fan (see Moneyball and The Home Game) and The Big Short does not disappoint.  

Knowing that I am not going to get another new work by this author for a year or so, I did my best to pace myself, but it was hopeless and three days later I was done.  Even though I am familiar with the story (see Too Big to Fail) I was not tempted even once to skim.

In a strange way the book restored some of my confidence in our free market system because the people that the author chooses to follow in the book are small time outsiders who were able to figure out very early what was going to happen in the market for mortgage bonds. Simultaneously however, Lewis reinforced my view that the Wall Street game is rigged and only a fools expose their money to parasites like Goldman Sachs. 

Here are my take aways:

  1.  The people at Goldman Sachs really are the best and the brightest -- and they really are amoral.  They invented the complex instruments that caused the problem, made the fees, and promptly offloaded the risks to others -- like AIG.  They did their very best to conceal the truth by influencing everyone from the ratings agencies to the government -- which permitted the problem to get very big before it blew up.  I can't help but wonder how many other times the economy got wobbly and was prevented from behaving like a self correcting rational market because Goldman and others like them were madly pulling all of the levers to maximize their winnings.
  2. Our government has no idea what to do about it.  Clearly the regulators are being deceived and worse yet they don't know it.  They were nowhere to be found while Bear Stearns, Lehman Bros, AIG, and others were placing gargantuan bets with other people's money and, amazingly, enough of their own money to blow themselves up.  When it came time to assess the situation and decide about TARP there was not a single government official that really knew what was going on.
  3. The author makes an effort to get to a root cause and drills to the Solomon Brothers conversion from a private company to a public company and therefore shifting the risk of their activities away from themselves and to their shareholders.  Everyone of John Gutfreund's peers considered it a betrayal at the time, but they all eventually followed suit.  Once they had suckered others to bear the risk -- they cranked the compensation models in their own favor and the RTC/Junk Bond blow up, the Long Term Capital Management blow up, the latest melt down, and the next catastrophe were set in motion.

That is right, we have not fixed a thing and just as the insiders are on their way to their next really big payday, the rest of the country is on its way to another "surprise" on Wall Street.  If you have a hard time believing this, check out this article in the Guardian about David Tepper.  Tepper decided he was not being fairly compensated at Goldman Sachs -- so he started Appaloosa Management that bet big on the government bailout of the banks.  His fund is up $4.5 billion and he gets $2.5 billion of it.  I wonder what is going to happen when the size of the problems created on Wall Street exceeds the financial capacity of our government to pay the bill.  Will we call that financial armageddon?

Here are some other reviews:

The New York Times

The Washington Post

Reuters

Here is a link to get the book on Amazon.com.

 

 

Book Review: Game Change by Halperin and Heilemann

For me the Game Changer was Sarah Palin.  How any serious contender for president of our country could pass her off as a qualified candidate was more than I could accept.  And I was firmly in the McCain camp too.  The account in Game Change put her vetting by the McCain staff at five days, which only reinforced my decision.  How any 69 year old candidate for the highest office could spend only five days evaluating someone who could have authority over the nukes -- and still claim to be a serious person is beyond me.  Someday I hope to be a Republican again.  I believe that less government is better, the gun thing is disturbing but manageable, and I will count on the Supreme Court to maintain a woman's access to all birth control options.  If the Republican party can regain some discipline and honestly face our challenges -- they can win back my vote.

Here are my take aways from the book:

 

  1. Barack Obama was the only serious candidate (or person) in the race.  Edwards, Giuliani, McCain, Clinton, Palin, and all the rest come off as seriously flawed and unfit people.
  2. Discipline, discipline, discipline.  Over and over Obama demonstrated his willingness to face his own issues and work hard to win.
  3. Michelle Obama is a force to be reckoned with and the only spouse in the book that was not a liability.
  4. The media has very little interest in providing the voter with the information necessary to make a considered decision.

 

If the authors are to be believed, and I have to wonder who can be believed anymore, Barack Obama is a capable and well intentioned person -- and by far the best of the choices we had for our President.  So in that respect maybe our democratic/electoral process actually worked. 

Here are some other book reviews you may find interesting:

The New York Times

The Washington Post

The Economist

The Huffington Post

You can buy the book from Amazon here.

A note on my book reviews:  You may think I have never met a book I did not like.  In fact I read a fair number of books that I would just as well forget and I do not write reviews of them.  I call these book reviews, but I really think of them as notes of impressions I had while reading that I don't want to forget.  I put in the links to the other reviews so you can get real critical thinking about the work from some true professionals.

 

Book Review: You are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Rant, Rant, Rant, Definitions, Octopus. It is an unual pattern for a book, but I absolutely recommend "You are not a Gadget" for anyone who thinks about technology and its impact on our lives. I have heard some critics say that this book answers a non-problem. Well, some time ago the problems we face today were not as obvious as they are now.  We are lucky to have people like Jaron Lanier to shine a light on issues we are creating for ourselves.  This book has caused quite a stir and many great reviews have been written (see links below).  Here is what I got out of it:

The Rants:  There is no question that the first half of the book is quite a rant against the way we are subjugating ourselves to machines.  It may go on a little long, but it is absolutely necessary.  An issue must first be described before it can be addressed.  In short he points out that computers are far from, and never will be, human.  The notion of artificial intelligence and more importantly our attraction to it is a threat to humans reaching their potential.  He gives many good examples and none of the companies in the web 2.0 world are spared.  You can try to argue against this idea, but right in the middle someone will pass by you speaking into their iPhone in the only idiotic sounding language that the Google voice to text machine can understand, and you will see the point.  We are willingly reducing ourselves to a composition that the much inferior computers can relate to. 

Definitions:  Lanier then gets into some definitions.  Despite the validity of the rants, I was pretty glad when we arrived at this part of the book.  Computationalism is defined as: "...the world can be understood as a computational process, with people as a subprocess."  Logical Positivism: "is the idea that a sentence or another fragment -- something you can put in a computer file -- means something in a freestanding way that doesn't require invoking the subjectivity of a human reader."  Realism: "...humans, considered as information systems, weren't designed yesterday, and are not the abstract playthings of some higher being, such as a web 2.0 programmer in the sky.  My take away:  The last one is the authors recommendation to not get sucked in.  Since we have to elect to become subservient to the machines -- we should have the the power to avoid it.  Thus the reason for the rants -- because unless we see the problem we are unlikely to wish to avoid it.

Octopus:  Lanier then goes on to talk about how our brain interacts with odors, how that differs from sight and sound, and how it will be a long time before computers can smell.  Then on to finches and how they sing alot more once they achieve assured mating, and a bit on how language interacts with the brain.  This leads to a discussion of Neoteny: the extent to which a species can survive from birth -- essentially 100% nature, or conversely must rely on learned behaviors after birth -- nature plus nurture.  OK, so on to the Octopus.  Here the author describes the incredible capabilities of an octopus to conceal itself by such elaborate camouflage where its entire skin is a canvas painted with great detail to match its highly complex surroundings.   All of this is accomplished by the brain of the octopus understanding its surroundings and then somehow conveying the image to its "display" surface in a blink.  Even more amazing when you consider that the octopus is 100% nature -- not learning anything from mom after birth.  Just try that you web 2.0 developers!

Overall I am taken by Jaron Lanier.  He is a good writer, knows volumes about a wide variety of subjects in a true renaissance way.  I was lucky enough to hear him speak in person and I would recommend that as well.  We are fortunate to be reading his book at a time when computing has not yet advanced to the point where it is even harder to perceive the problem.  Sure it seems ridiculous now to allow ourselves to be defined by Facebook, but a few Moore's law cycles from now we may find we have met the machine halfway -- and that would be a shame.  One last quote:  "At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school."  Let's at least resist the urge to go there.

Other reviews I recommend:

Slate

Wall Street Journal

New York Post

New York Times

To buy the book on Amazon

Book Review: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Micheal Lewis continues to be one of my favorite non fiction authors. His book Moneyball is not new (2004) but I just got around to reading it. A film based on the book starring Brad Pitt got sidelined in mid last year and aparently the producer is looking for ways to cut the budget. Funny thing, because the book is all about how the Oakland A's general manager, Billy Beane, did more with less money than anyone else -- so maybe Columbia Pictures should call him!

There are too many great stories in the book to recount and the creativity and new thinking they applied to baseball can clearly be instructional for business. Here are my take aways:

  • New Ideas Can Work: Baseball has been around for a long time and has tradition and momentum enough to stop even the most persistent innovator. If these guys could change the thinking in baseball, the sky is the limit for people that want to innovate in business.
  • New Blood: Billy Beane brought in people from the outside. The less experience they had in Baseball the better.
  • Measure Everything: Even if you don't know what you are going to do with the numbers. Question all of the existing numbers and figure out new ways to collect data on activities.
  • Don't be Rational: Eventually the outsiders figured out how to reverse engineer runs. They tinkered and tinkered until they got a formula that they thought would work and then they applied it to the past to test it. They were able to suspend their own rational thinking long enough to try things that on the surface just did not make sense.
  • Don't Let the Facts Turn Into Excuses: The A's knew they had no money, if you can call a $40 Million payroll no money, and they got over it and moved on to finding solutions. So at the same time they faced the facts (constrained budget), they were not willing to use the facts to lower their expectations of themselves.

Here are some other reviews:

Forbes 

NY Times 

Here is a link to the book on Amazon.

Book Review: Free by Chris Anderson

There are so many great books on my reading list that moving Chris Anderson's "Free" to the top was not something I was all that excited about. In the tech marketing business it is hard to go a week without someone referencing his book however, so to the top it went. I really liked "The Long Tail" and therefore had no justifiable reason to read it begrudgingly. Turns out it is quite good.

I do not ordinarily read with a pen or pencil in my hand. I used to underline things but found I never went back and used the markings so why bother. About 30 pages into Free I found I had 10 pages dog eared and got out my pencil. Just about every page in the book now has a note on it. The book is very well researched, easy to read, and full of great quotes I will want to find easily. The exercise of reading Free also added half a dozen other books to my reading list.

No small part of my reluctance to read the thing was based in the thought that I already knew what he was going to say. Free drives traffic, traffic is value, value converts to dollars some other way...example, example, example, done. While the book does follow this framework, it is much more interesting than that. I had heard many other arguments that the new currencies of attention and reputation were more valuable than dollars, but this book makes the idea pop and then locks it in with solid facts and a convincing cast of supporters.

The author tackles the critics head on and even devotes a chapter to a list of many arguments against the idea of Free and then crisply refutes them one by one. Now there is a limit of course. I am pretty sure I know what would happen should I call up the IRS and suggest that living in this country should be free.

Clearly everything cannot be free, but Chris Anderson does a good job of articulating why some businesses are better off adopting the model.

The two current high profile tests of this idea: Rupert Murdoch against Google, and the New York Times 2011 pay wall decision, happened after the publishing date; and both the NY Times and the WSJ are cited numerous times. These new developments do not take away from the book, and somehow even make the reading seem even more relevant.

Here are some other very good reviews. All of them come in on the too good to be true side. I will post a rebuttal at some later date because I am in the middle of a couple of other contra argument books and I want to give both sides equal time before I conclude anything dramatic.

The New Yorker

NY Times Book Review

Washington Post

Here is a link to the book on Amazon.