Feb 2016
Guns, Germs, and Steel
The Fates of Human Societies
Jared DiamondAuthor Bio

Much ink has already been spilled about this book, and searching for reviews and opinions online leads to very polarizing results. There's a lot about this book that I didn't like, a lot of places where the logic didn't quite add up, and for me it happened enough that I'm pretty squarely in the "skeptical" camp regarding Diamond overall. I don't buy into every detail here, but I think he does largely get the story right. That story being that Eurasian people were the first to colonize the planet only because of geographical conditions in Eurasia that led them to develop civilizations (guns, germs, steel) before other cultures were able to do so. This is in contrast to any kind of theory that Europeans were smarter, more apt or able, destined, or simply lucky. Diamond argues that what happened simply couldn't have happened any other way, given the initial endowment.

And that's what I like. I don't necessarily agree with every point, but I appreciate that Diamond is creating a theory of history, rather than simply telling a story. He's not describing what happened, he's describing the theory behind it. He's approaching it scientifically, insofar as one is able to without the benefit of falsifiable hypotheses. It could not have happened another way.

There is simply no way indigenous Australians could have ever colonized the world first; regardless of ingenuity, they simply didn't have the resources. This is obvious, and yet, somehow controversial.

Anyway, some quotes.

Once people began to produce food and become sedentary, they could shorten the birth spacing and produce still more people, requiring still more food. This bidirectional link between food production and population density explains the paradox that food production, while increasing the quantity of edible calories per acre, left the food producers less well nourished than the hunter-gatherers whom they succeeded. That paradox developed because human population densities rose slightly more steeply than did the availability of food.

Of the 200,000 wild plant species, only a few thousand are eaten by humans, and just a few hundred of these have been more or less domesticated. Even of these several hundred crops, most provide minor supplements to our diet and would not by themselves have sufficed to support the rise of civilizations. A mere dozen species account for over 80 percent of the modern world’s annual tonnage of all crops. Those dozen blockbusters are the cereals wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum; the pulse soybean; the roots or tubers potato, manioc, and sweet potato; the sugar sources sugarcane and sugar beet; and the fruit banana. Cereal crops alone now account for more than half of the calories consumed by the world’s human populations. With so few major crops in the world, all of them domesticated thousands of years ago, it’s less surprising that many areas of the world had no wild native plants at all of outstanding potential. Our failure to domesticate even a single major new food plant in modern times suggests that ancient peoples really may have explored virtually all useful wild plants and domesticated all the ones worth domesticating.

I don't buy this logic at all, it rings of survivorship bias to me. Of course the most important crops we eat today are the ones that were domesticated long ago. That goes without saying. But that isn't evidence that no other plants could have been domesticated back then as well, or that if having done so, they wouldn't be more productive today.

Australia and the Americas, but not Eurasia or Africa, lost most of their candidates in a massive wave of late-Pleistocene extinctions—possibly because the mammals of the former continents had the misfortune to be first exposed to humans suddenly and late in our evolutionary history, when our hunting skills were already highly developed.

I feel like here you could argue that a more intelligent people would have had the foresight to domesticate these docile megafauna, but that's neither for nor against Diamond's case.

Finally, a higher percentage of the surviving candidates proved suitable for domestication on Eurasia than on the other continents. An examination of the candidates that were never domesticated, such as Africa’s big herd-forming mammals, reveals particular reasons that disqualified each of them.

Similar to the quote above with plants, Diamond seems to argue that horses were more domesticatable than zebras by showing how modern horses and modern zebras differ. Well of course they do, the horses have been domesticated. Had anyone actually succeeded in domesticating zebras, then zebras would be quite different. Diamond never looks at what cows or pigs or sheep were like before they were domesticated. Why can we assume they were easy to domesticate? I'm sure there are answers to this, and I think Diamond tried to address it, but he never convinced me.

A striking example from the history of writing is the origin of the syllabary devised in Arkansas around 1820 by a Cherokee Indian named Sequoyah, for writing the Cherokee language. Sequoyah observed that white people made marks on paper, and that they derived great advantage by using those marks to record and repeat lengthy speeches. However, the detailed operations of those marks remained a mystery to him, since (like most Cherokees before 1820) Sequoyah was illiterate and could neither speak nor read English. Because he was a blacksmith, Sequoyah began by devising an accounting system to help him keep track of his customers’ debts. He drew a picture of each customer; then he drew circles and lines of various sizes to represent the amount of money owed. Around 1810, Sequoyah decided to go on to design a system for writing the Cherokee language. He again began by drawing pictures, but gave them up as too complicated and too artistically demanding. He next started to invent separate signs for each word, and again became dissatisfied when he had coined thousands of signs and still needed more. Finally, Sequoyah realized that words were made up of modest numbers of different sound bites that recurred in many different words—what we would call syllables. He initially devised 200 syllabic signs and gradually reduced them to 85, most of them for combinations of one consonant and one vowel. As one source of the signs themselves Sequoyah’s syllabary is widely admired by professional linguists for its good fit to Cherokee sounds, and for the ease with which it can be learned. Within a short time, the Cherokees achieved almost 100 percent literacy in the syllabary, bought a printing press, had Sequoyah’s signs cast as type, and began printing books and newspapers. Cherokee writing remains one of the best-attested examples of a script that arose through idea diffusion. We know that Sequoyah received paper and other writing materials, the idea of a writing system, the idea of using separate marks, and the forms of several dozen marks. Since, however, he could neither read nor write English, he acquired no details or even principles from the existing scripts around him. Surrounded by alphabets he could not understand, he instead independently reinvented a syllabary, unaware that the Minoans of Crete had already invented another syllabary 3,500 years previously.

How awesome is this? I'm fascinated by the epiphany moment here. Imagine what it's like to just realize that words can be written down. Could there still exist leaps forward like this that require no significant new technology - just a new perspective?

  1. Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical society. Among his many awards are the National Medal of Science, the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Japan’s Cosmo Prize, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and the Lewis Thomas Prize Honoring the Scientist as Poet, presented by Rockefeller University. He has published more than six hundred articles and his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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Jan 2016
Adventures with Extremists
Jon RonsonAuthor Bio

I expected this to just be a description of many different extremist groups. And at the base level, it is. Ronson hangs out with extreme islamists, gun crazy isolationists, white supremacists, etc. The narrative loosely revolves around an investigation into the Bilderberg group, which many of these extremist groups seem to believe are a secret organization running the world. He spends a lot of time with these people, getting to know then, describing their beliefs. He never excuses them. He never says that it's okay to share their opinion, and never describes their positions in a sympathetic way that would encourage others to follow on. But he also doesn't ever call them stupid, or make fun of them.

But, somehow, he does get the reader to build a sense of empathy for these people. At various points in the book, it starts looking pretty convincing that these Builderbergers do actually secretly run the world. The brilliance of the book is in how well it demonstrates how different people can come to different information based on the same evidence. It's very well done. It also sheds some interesting light on the people who actually do run the world, the Bilderbergers and their ilk. I often wonder how at what point in my life impostor syndrome would run out, and I'd actually become a real adult that knows what I'm doing. By the end of the book, I think Ronson does a fine job of showing how no one, not even presidents, really have an idea what the hell is going on.

I dug it. I feel like everyone is a bit better off reading this book.

  1. Jon Ronson is a writer and documentary film maker. His books, Them: Adventures With Extremists and The Men Who Stare At Goats were international bestsellers. The Men Who Stare At Goats was adapted into a major motion picture starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges.

    He's written the popular "Human Zoo" and "Out of the Ordinary" columns for The Guardian, where he still contributes features. He currently writes and presents the twice Sony nominated BBC Radio 4 series, Jon Ronson On...

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Jan 2016
Bird by Bird
Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anne LamottAuthor Bio

Great book about writing, and reading, and in general on paying attention to the world. This is a great book that has gotten me excited about reading some fiction again. And, also, about getting better about writing as well. I get the feeling I'll listen to this one again in the future. Most of the advice actually seems pretty obvious; write every day, observe the world around you, create a commonplace book to draw from in the future, focus on small goals (step by step, bird by bird). So, it's isn't necessarily the substance that made this book, but the delivery. The, uh, the writing I guess.

  1. Anne Lamott, the daughter of the writer Kenneth Lamott, grew up in Marin County, north of San Francisco. She attended Goycher College in Maryland on a tennis scholarship. There, she wrote for the school newspaper, but dropped out after two years and returned to San Francisco. After a brief stint writing for WomenSports magazine, she began working on short pieces.

    The diagnosis of her father's brain cancer prompted her to write her first novel, Hard Laughter, published by Viking in 1980. She has since written several more novels and works of nonfiction.

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Jan 2016
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Alex EpsteinAuthor Bio

Epstein starts off on the right foot. He kicks things off by defining his normative morality as being humanitarian – putting human “well being” above all else. He contrasts this with a needlessly disparaging caricature of his opposition as defining their morality as putting the environment above human needs, and that their normative “good” as a state of nature unchanged by humans. Later in the book he refers to these positions as humanist vs anti-humanist. It is disappointing, because so many good conversations could be had here. I’ve often wondered myself where I sit on this spectrum. For instance, environmentalists often decry invasive species as bad – but why? I understand they can change the local ecology dramatically, and it’s especially questionable when it’s a direct result of human interaction that causes it – but why is it necessarily bad? Is it only dangerous in that small ecological changes can cause unexpected and disproportionately larger changes over time? Is it bad only in the sense that it may disrupt human health or prosperity in the long term? Is it immoral for human activity to reduce the number of wolves, even if it increases the number of elk? Is it immoral to kill plants cause human suffering or inconvenience? Even if there’s no risk of extinction, is it immoral to needlessly chop down a tree? To kill a bear? Is morality only concerned with the suffering we inflict on other conscious creatures? Is any loss of genetic diversity immoral?

I don’t know exactly where I stand on many of those questions, and I don’t think Epstein does either. Epstein continuously pushes the idea that industrial progress (fueled by fossil fuels) has been unambiguously good because life expectancy and average income are up. He gives examples where there are hospitals in Africa that can't keep people healthy/alive because of intermittent power reliability, and says that cheaper energy would solve that. the problem is, he completely ignores the socioeconomic factors here. Is the problem that we don't have enough energy in the world today, or is the problem that we're not distributing it fairly?

Ever since reading the Traffic book, I've been more aware of processes that continuously exist on the margin. In that book the examples were that traffic never actually decreases when roads are expanded, just more people start to drive. Or similarly, as cars get safer road deaths don't actually decrease, people just feel justified driving faster. Back to energy, I wonder what Epstein sees as an ideal long term state of the world? If we can imagine that human beings invent some kind of perfectly free, perfectly clean, perfectly portable energy, what would actually happen? He seems to think this would be unambiguously good, but I have my doubts. Certainly a lot of good would come from it, but you're kidding yourself if you think that in that scenario everyone on Earth would somehow have access to an equal proportion. In this extreme scenario, it's clear to me that people would just keep having babies until the next limiting factor is met, be it in physical space, or sanitation, or water, etc. If we had infinite energy population would skyrocket until those living on the margin could just barely survive. In absolute terms, the amount of human suffering would go through the roof, and we'd completely destroy the Earth in the process. Is that morally good? Epstein says yes. And that says nothing about the current, actually-happening, world conditions caused by fossil fuels. For instance, look at the political regimes propped up by oil reserves. Is it moral to economically support dictators and theocrats? Epstein never considers it.

This was a horrible book. Almost everything in it is as wrong as it can be, and it's not even satisfying or consistent within its own terms. However, it did make me spend some time thinking about what the right questions, and the right answers are for myself. Most disappointingly though, is I don't think it helped me at all in terms of understanding how to argue with someone that believes this. Epstein isn't a retarded, or even uneducated person. He knows what externalities are. I'm sure he's aware of behavioral economics. I mean, it's trivially easy to disprove classical assumption-based econ as a reflection of real markets and market participants. So I'm left feeling as though I just read a religious text, entirely faith based. Is there a rational argument, or dataset, that could possibly get Epstein to consider another policy? I don't think so.

  1. Alex Epstein has an undergrad degree in Philosophy. Since then, he's worked at the Ayn Rand institute doing who-knows-what, reading dated anti-Soviet propaganda I guess. Since then, despite having zero qualifications, education, or experience in the topic, he's started a pro-fossil fuel "think tank".

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Dec 2015
The Road to Character
David BrooksAuthor Bio

David Brook's The Road to Character got a lot of attention this year, ultimately landing on Gate's best-of-2015 list. Before that, Emily told me I had to read it. The uninspired cover made that a tough proposition, I don't really remember why I agreed.

It was good, but in the way that my mom, or most peoples moms, would think it was good. I found Brook's conservatism coming through, in that all of his examples of good character seemed to be good in a very traditional, 1950's-feeling kind of way. Self-discipline and self-restraint were reoccurring themes, and I felt like spirituality came into the conversation quite a bit too often. I think part of my trouble with it is that it's become very difficult for me to think about character and motivation the way he does, seemingly from the perspective of an imperfect human struggling with a spiritual decision: hedonistic sinning vs restraint and service to others in the name of god. A typical passage:

Sin is not some demonic thing. It’s just our perverse tendency to fuck things up, to favor the short term over the long term, the lower over the higher.

I can't get on board with that. To me this is such a missed opportunity. We don't favor the short term because of sin, we favor the short term for relatively established genetic, evolutionary preferences that perform well under natural selection. There's a very interesting discussion there about how and why we do that, what the implications for us are today, and how best to subvert that legitimate desire for the greater welfare of the group. We should be studying human nature on it's own terms. I'm not saying every book needs to be a biology book - but by having the premise be the exact opposite, I feel like something is lost.

That complaint aside, as philosophy I generally found everything here very much worth reading and considering, and some of it very inspiring. A few of my highlights:

This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buccaneer put it, “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?”

It is important to point out how much the sense of vocation is at odds with the prevailing contemporary logic. A vocation is not about fulfilling your desires or wants, the way modern economists expect us to do. A vocation is not about the pursuit of happiness, if by “happiness” you mean being in a good mood, having pleasant experiences, or avoiding struggle and pain.

Today, teachers tend to look for their students’ intellectual strengths, so they can cultivate them. But a century ago, professors tended to look for their students’ moral weaknesses, so they could correct them.

Many people today have deep moral and altruistic yearnings, but, lacking a moral vocabulary, they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I have impact? Or, worst of all: How can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I?

  1. David Brooks's column on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times started in September 2003. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, and he is currently a commentator on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer." He is the author of "Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There" and “On Paradise Drive : How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense,” both published by Simon & Schuster. Mr. Brooks joined The Weekly Standard at its inception in September 1995, having worked at The Wall Street Journal for the previous nine years. His last post at the Journal was as op-ed editor. Prior to that, he was posted in Brussels, covering Russia, the Middle East, South Africa and European affairs. His first post at the Journal was as editor of the book review section, and he filled in for five months as the Journal's movie critic. Mr. Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983, and worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau, a wire service owned jointly by the Chicago Tribune and Sun Times. He is also a frequent analyst on NPR’s "All Things Considered" and the "Diane Rehm Show." His articles have appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, the Washington Post, the TLS, Commentary, The Public Interest and many other magazines. He is editor of the anthology "Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing" (Vintage Books).

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Dec 2015
Vienna 1814
David KingAuthor Bio

We had a trip planned to go to Vienna in December, and this book had been on my list for a while. Our trip was a good opportunity to bring this to the top. I didn't have many expectations going into this book at all. I knew very little, in fact borderline zero, Germanic history pre-WWI. I knew some French history, but had a really large hole in between the French Revolution and WWI. I think everyone in the world has heard of Napoleon, but honestly I didn't really know when we was alive, and what the consequences of his empire/actions were. Lastly, I had known that the century or so before WWI was actually quite peaceful, relative to general European history, and I wanted to know why.

This book didn't really answer any of those questions.

1814 is primarily a book about people. It's about the dignitaries, plenipotentiaries, kings, and emperors who attended the conference, as well as their staffs, mistresses, etc. It was definitely an interesting read, and provided just enough background for me to get a grasp on what was happening, but didn't dig into the historical context or consequences of the conference nearly as much as I would have liked. Instead, the author focused on the individuals, their motivations, their accomplishments, their frustrations.

For me, the most interesting parts were the side chapters covering Napoleon. Shortly before the conference at the end of the Napoleonic wars, he lost and was exiled to Elba, a very nice island right off the coast of northern Italy. He was greeted their as an emperor, and for several months ruled his Elban subjects from the 19th century equivalent of a conference room. It was not the digs he was used to. It was interesting to read about his time there, and his eventual frustration and return to the mainland. The French people were still generally loyal to Napoleon after he lost the wars, and did not like the Bourbon dynasty which replaced him. When he returned from Elba, he threw a giant wrench into the Vienna conference, and created a schism in France. Eventually he gained enough power and influence (quickly) to lead an army and march on the British and Prussians that he had previously lost to. Famously, in Waterloo Belgium, he suffered a terrible military defeat and was almost himself captured. When it was clear that he no longer had an army, and only had dwindling power, he attempted to flee to America. The British caught him and exiled him to Helena, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, where he died years later.

  1. David King is the bestselling author of Death in the City of Light , Vienna 1814, and Finding Atlantis. His books have been selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, the History Book Club, the Military Book Club, the Mystery Guild, and the Quality Paperback Book Club. They have been named to several prominent lists of the best nonfiction books of the year and translated into more than a dozen languages. Most recently, Death in the City of Light has been featured on the homepage of Yahoo, MSNBC, CNBC, CBS News, and the Today Show at msnbc.com A Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree from Cambridge University, King taught European history at the University of Kentucky before becoming a full-time writer. He has been honored as a Fellow of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, a Fellow of the International Napoleonic Society, and an inductee into his high school’s Hall of Fame. King’s books have been read widely from university students to the President of the United States. He lives in Lexington, Kentucky with his wife and children.

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Oct 2015
The Soul of an Octopus
A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness
Sy MontgomeryAuthor Bio

For a long time I expected that my review of this book would be similar to my earlier review of Montgomery's Birdology, with specific examples and quotes and reasons why I didn't like it, etc. But enough time has passed now since I've finished reading it that I've lost the enthusiasm to do so, and I've realized that it wouldn't be productive anyway.

The Soul of an Octopus is fraught with the same problems that plagued Birdology. Montgomery anthropomorphizes her subjects to such a degree that this book simply cannot be regarded as a work of science. The subtitle is the greatest offender here, as there is no rigorous attempt to describe or understand consciousness whatsoever. I won't be reading Montgomery again.

  1. Sy writes for adults and children, for print and broadcast, in America and overseas in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible at what she considers a critical turning point in human history. “We are on the cusp of either destroying this sweet, green Earth—or revolutionizing the way we understand the rest of animate creation,” she says. “It’s an important time to be writing about the connections we share with our fellow creatures. It’s a great time to be alive.” She speaks frequently at schools and museums, libraries and universities. She is a 1979 graduate of Syracuse University, a triple major with dual degrees in Magazine Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and in French Language and Literature and in Psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Keene State College in 2004, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Franklin Pierce University and also from Southern New Hampshire University in 2011.

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Oct 2015
Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Jon KrakauerAuthor Bio

There's a part in this book where a college student gets super drunk and meets a stranger (also student, also very drunk) outside her dorm room, and literally invites him up for sex. They both explicitly agree to it. But then when they get to her room, she changes her mind and says she doesn't want to have sex anymore. He gets into her bed anyway, and invites her to join, which she does - thinking they would just cuddle or something. And he rapes her. I read that portion of the book thinking 'wow - she's an idiot.' And in my head I had a lot of trouble feeling empathy for someone who acted so recklessly. The woman was distraught after, of course, and I just sort of thought - 'well, yeah, that's what happens when you do that.'

And then I read like 10 more hours of stories like that. Not all like that, certainly. But all acquaintance rape (vs stranger-in-a-ski-mask-rape) of college women. And I realized that I was totally, 100% wrong, and somehow hadn't appreciated the asymmetry of the situation. In that story above, I never faulted the man for going up to the girl's room, but he was putting himself into a ridiculously risky situation.

The lasting impression that the book left me with was that the rapist men aren't always what you imagine a scumbag criminal to be. Most rape isn't predetermined, carried out by a stranger in a ski mask. In many of the court cases described in the book, the defendant men had dozens of character witnesses from the community saying they were great people. They hadn't committed other crimes, or been deviant in other ways. Their families loved them. They had good grades. They didn't rape because they were evil sociopaths, or because they wanted to cause harm, or because they wanted to rape someone. They weren't awful, hateful people. They did it because they got carried away in a certain direction, have some culture entitlement, and did not feel that they themselves were ever at risk. That's the terrifying realization - for me at least. I suppose women have known this all along.

I wish the book focused more on this, and more and what we can do to change that behavior. Violent, "ski-mask" rape certainly exists, but the majority of rape is, apparently, committed by otherwise decent people when mixed with entitlement, alcohol, and opportunity. I don't use the term "decent people" there to either exonerate rapists nor to denigrate their victims' claims. I just mean that ex-ante, how do you know? And how do you catch it and fix it? Something has to change at the policy/cultural level that judges men for allowing themselves to get into a situation where they could be accused of rape, just as harshly as I had judged the women at the beginning.

I don't know any high school graduates - but this would make a much better gift than Oh The Places You'll Go.

  1. Born in 1954, Jon Krakauer grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, where his father introduced him to mountaineering as an eight-year-old. After graduating from Hampshire College in 1976, Krakauer divided his time between Colorado, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest, supporting himself primarily as a carpenter and commercial salmon fisherman. For the next two decades, however, his life revolved around climbing mountains.

    In 1996 Krakauer climbed Mt. Everest, but a storm took the lives of four of the five teammates who reached the summit with him. An analysis of the calamity he wrote for Outside magazine received a National Magazine Award. The unsparingly forthright book he subsequently wrote about Everest, Into Thin Air, became a #1 New York Times bestseller and was translated into more than twenty-five languages. It was also Time magazine’s Book of the Year, and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

    In 1998, as a tribute to his companions lost on Everest, Krakauer established the Everest ’96 Memorial Fund at the Boulder Community Foundation with earnings from Into Thin Air. As of 2012, the fund had donated more than $1.7 million to such charities as the American Himalayan Foundation, Educate the Children, Veterans Helping Veterans Now, the Access Fund, and the Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center.

    Krakauer’s writing has been published by Outside, GQ, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Architectural digest, Playboy, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Byliner.com. An article he wrote for Smithsonian about volcanology received the 1997 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism. His 1996 book, Into the Wild, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years.

    In 1999 Krakauer received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, intended “to honor writers of exceptional accomplishment.” According to the Academy’s citation, “Krakauer combines the tenacity and courage of the finest tradition of investigative journalism with the stylish subtlety and profound insight of the born writer. His account of an ascent of Mount Everest has led to a general reevaluation of climbing and of the commercialization of what was once a romantic, solitary sport; while his account of the life and death of Christopher McCandless, who died of starvation after challenging the Alaskan wilderness, delves even more deeply and disturbingly into the fascination of nature and the devastating effects of its lure on a young and curious mind.”

    In 2003, Krakauer published Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, about religious fundamentalism in the American West. While researching Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, published in 2009, Krakauer spent five months embedded with combat forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In 2011, he published Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way. All of his proceeds from this latter work have been donated to the Stop Girl Trafficking program at the American Himalayan Foundation.

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Sep 2015
The Man Who Wasn't There
Investigations into the Strange New Science of the Self
Anil AnathaswamyAuthor Bio

This book is in the tradition of Oliver Sacks, in that it's broken into separate chapters that each touch on a specific topic, and then drill down into a patient or acquaintance of the author who had the condition described. The purpose of the book is to try to tease out what it is the defines the self, and that makes us "us", but it never really hits that mark. The book straddles science and philosophy without ever committing wholly enough to either to really make a dent.

The overviews of the various diseases was very interesting - particularly Alzheimers and schizophrenia (which, I just found out that I am quite certain I've never had to spell in my whole life until now). Things didn't really heat up until the end though, and a few particular things got me.

  1. Anil Ananthaswamy is a consultant for New Scientist in London. He has worked at the magazine in various capacities since 2000, most recently as deputy news editor. He is also a contributor to National Geographic News. Ananthaswamy worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley before training as a journalist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He's the author of The Edge of Physics (published as The Edge of Reason by Penguin in India).

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Sep 2015

I did a bad thing. I got lazy and fell a book or two behind in my reviews. Then three or four books. Then I started doing the thing where even though I had time to start writing again, I felt so bad about being so far behind that I just fell further behind. So, 10 months later, I'm now way, way, way behind. So I'm declaring bankruptcy on those books. Very bummed that I actually remember very little about a few of these these - several of them were pretty great.

  1. Idiot

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Nov 2014
Paths, Dangers, Strategies
Nick BostromAuthor Bio

This is probably the most disappointing book of the year. It's not bad, it's just really unpleasant to read. I expected it to be fantastic, given the below:

Sep 2014
Stress Test
Reflections on Financial Crises
Tim GeithnerAuthor Bio

This one is going to be pretty short, which is a shame, but I finished this book several weeks ago and don't have a lot of strong take-aways from it to keep here. It's far, far better than Paulson's book. I thought it was more comprehensive in explaining the underlying issues during the financial crisis, as well as the resolutions. Geithner's book is obviously much newer, and so had a lot of detail I hadn't really read about yet (from the insider's perspective) on recent Fed action, and on the European banking crisis. I would say overall that this book, paired with Too Big To Fail are probably the go-to recommended resources on the crisis.

Only thing I didn't really care for was how apologist many parts of the book came across as. Geithner was on the defensive the whole time, talking up how great Obama (and, to be fair, Bush) dealt with the situation. That part got a bit old.

  1. TIMOTHY F. GEITHNER was the seventy-fifth secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and previously served as president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He wrote this book as a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Aug 2014
Going Clear
Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief
Lawrence WrightAuthor Bio

I don't really know why any of this book surprised me, but it certainly did. I didn't know anything about Scientology before reading it, nothing at all. I liked that it had "Science" in the name, I guess, though I wasn't actually naive enough to think that it was a scientific enterprise. I remember living in Tacoma right next to a beautiful roman-style scientology church. It even had some anachronistic misspelling in it, I think it was called "CHVRCH OF SCIENTOLOGY". Anyway, Scientology always seemed a bit different to me, so I wanted to know more about it.

It turns out that scientology is crazy, in the most literal and derogatory sense of the word. It was founded by a completely crazy, deplorable man, and it was propagated, and continues to be propagated, by completely crazy and deplorable people.

All religions are crazy. Religion itself is a socially acceptable label to use whenever you want to believe something that doesn't make sense, or when you want to stop asking questions. But Scientology is unabashedly crazy. It revels in it's own crazyness.

I don't think it's helpful to me, or anyone else, to re-hash why it's so crazy - or describe the absurd things that scientologists actually believe to be true. Wright has a very obvious bias against scientology, and he doesn't pull any punches in describing their ridiculous history. Wright (convincingly) paints the organization as a predatory, for-profit cult. I'm inclined to believe every word in the book, but to be fair, he doesn't cite many sources. This particularly bothered me when he would describe scenes/events that clearly took place in private, among very few (high ranking) people. I don't feel like he was forthright about when he was speaking factually, vs when he was citing a single source (who likely had agendas of their own).

Most interesting to me were the following topics (which weren't necessarily even discussed in the book, but what I've continued thinking about in the time since finishing it).

Lastly, I'm not really sure what's going on with the cover here, but I find the not-so-subtle crucifix iconography to be a bit out of place. Is that just because this is a book about religion? Is it comparing scientology to christianity? Hubbard to Christ? Either way, it seems to be implying a dialogue not found in the book.

  1. Lawrence Wright (born August 2, 1947) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, screenwriter, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and fellow at the Center for Law and Security at the New York University School of Law. Wright is best known as the author of the 2006 nonfiction book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

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July 2014
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
William L. ShirerAuthor Bio

I have no idea why I bought this book. I think I may have seen it on sale over a year ago and picked it up randomly - and then it sat unread for so long that I forgot I even had it. I got into a bit of a book slump a few months ago and started looking through the old purchases to see what was there, found this, and decided to give it a try.

This is one of the most interesting books I've ever read. I really loved it. I thought I knew all the broad strokes of WWII from various history classes in high school and from general pop culture knowledge - but I was way off. Primarily I was way off in that my entire experience with WWII history is colored by the fact that we won the war. It goes without saying that we won the war. In my mind I can't even imagine the outcome of the war being questionable. This book was first published in 1959, less than 15 years after the end of the war, by an American journalist stationed in Berlin who had front row seats for the whole thing. The book is the opposite of my prior pop-culture-informed knowledge - instead it is a super raw, angry, this-just-happened-and-we-were-*this*-close-to-losing account of what must be one of the worst times in our history.

The list of 'highlights' are too many, but below are a few things that were either especially surprising to me or in general something that I think will stick with me.

That's it. This was an incredible book, and very well written. I'd say more, but this is a super famous body of work and anyone curious about either the author, or more details about the war or the book should just google it, as my horrendous writing does it a terrible disservice.

  1. William Lawrence Shirer (February 23, 1904 – December 28, 1993) was an American journalist, war correspondent, and historian, who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a history of Nazi Germany that has been read by many and cited in scholarly works for more than 50 years. Originally a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the International News Service, Shirer was the first reporter hired by Edward R. Murrow for what would become a CBS radio team of journalists, and he became known for his broadcasts from Berlin, from the rise of the Nazi dictatorship through the first year of World War II (1940). With Murrow, he organized the first broadcast world news roundup, a format still followed by news broadcasts.

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June 2014
The Story of the Human Body
Evolution, Health, and Disease
Daniel E. LiebermanAuthor Bio

Lieberman's main idea throughout this book is that we evolved over millions of years to excel under a specific set of conditions, and over the last few hundred (thousand) years have so quickly changed our own environment and lifestyle that many of our adaptations are actually working against us, so much so that they are the cause for the worst and most prevalent ailments/diseases in modern times.

The book is interesting all the way through, but the whole time I felt like it was one big "no duh". It's hard to imagine someone either disagreeing with the claims in the book, or even finding any of the premises or conclusions surprising. I guess it's not quite common sense, but it definitely wasn't anything bold or new or exciting. For example, calories used to be very hard to come by, so we developed intense desire for fats and sweets (high caloric foods), which we rarely had access to. Fast forward to now, and you have instant access to hyper-processed, intense calorie bombs like ice cream or soda. Obviously, this has led to a worldwide (and particularly in developed nations) epidemic of obesity and diabetes. This isn't surprising or contestable, but it is interesting, and throughout the book I ended up learning about (and paying attention to) Lieberman's description of how these diseases and body systems work (as well as more detail on how we evolved), more so than on the arguments he was trying to make.

  1. Daniel E. Lieberman (born June 3, 1964) is a paleoanthropologist at Harvard University, where he is the Edwin M Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences, and chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. He is best known for his research on the evolution of the human head and the evolution of the human body.

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may 2014
Creativity, Inc.
Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration
Ed CatmullAuthor Bio

This book has gotten plenty of press recently, and other people have already reviewed it better than I'd be able to. Catmull is the founder of Pixar, and so he knows a thing or two about how to run an organization that can successfully innovate and be creative as a cultural norm. Many of the things he said were fantastic. But, because I don't work in a creative field, many did not really apply to me. There were still a bunch of lessons to take away here though that can be applied toward anything.

I think this really is the kind of management book that I would want to return to every couple years.

  1. Ed Catmull, Ph.D, is co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and President of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Previously, Catmull was Vice President of the computer division of Lucasfilm Ltd., where he managed development in the areas of computer graphics, video editing, video games and digital audio. Catmull has been honored with five Academy Awards, including a Technical Achievement Award, two Scientific and Engineering Awards, and one Academy Award of Merit for his work. In 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Catmull with the Gordon E. Sawyer Award for his lifetime of technical contributions and leadership in the field of computer graphics for the motion picture industry. He also received the ACM SIGGRAPH Steven A. Coons Award for his lifetime contributions in the computer graphics field, and the animation industry's Ub Iwerks Award for technical advancements in the art or industry of animation. Catmull is a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Visual Effects Society, and the University of California President's Board on Science and Innovation. Catmull was honored with the Randy Pausch Prize from Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center in 2008, and was selected as the recipient of the IEEE Computer Society's 2008 Computer Entrepreneur Award. Catmull has a bachelor's degree in computer science and physics and a doctorate in computer science from the University of Utah. In 2005, the University of Utah presented him with an Honorary Doctoral Degree in engineering.

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fiction: apr 2014
Calculating God Robert J. Sawyer Author Bio

Along with A Short Stay In Hell, this is the best possible fiction book I'm pretty much ever likely to read. It's just fantastic. It's fun and well driven and it made me think twice about a few core things. I especially liked the non-religious perspective it took. The book entirely divorces the idea of religion from the existence of a god. God exists or it doesn't, but religion is a man-made phenomenon. That isn't to say that the book entirely espouses deism either, or the idea that God must not care or even know about individual people, just that it certainly explores that option. Anyway, a great book. A few notes of tidbits I enjoyed:

  • There was a lot of talk of why Earth hasn't been visited by aliens (until ow, in the book), and the general answer being that there is remarkably little time (on a cosmological scale) in between when a civilization is advanced enough to emit any kind of signal (radio, space travel) that it exists, and the time that it develops and uses weapons powerful enough to extinguish it.
  • Related to the above, which I'd heard before, Sawyer introduced a second option: that civilizations transcend into digital-esque immortal consciousnesses (i.e., go live in The Matrix) forever.
  • At one point God was hypothesized as an emergent, non-biological intelligence the resulted from the big bang.
  • God hypothesized as a Schrodinger-like character that observes us, and by doing so causes us to exist. And not only that, but that he chooses a particular path to observe.

    "When Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess, it did so by seeing all the possible positions the chess pieces might have, not just at the next turn, but also at the one after that, and the one after that, and so on. If God existed, did he see all the possible next moves for all his playing pieces?"

  1. Robert J. Sawyer -- called "the dean of Canadian science fiction" by the OTTAWA CITIZEN and "just about the best science-fiction writer out there" by the Denver ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS -- is one of eight authors in history to win all three of the science-fiction field's highest honors for best novel of the year: the Hugo Award (which he won for HOMINIDS), the Nebula Award (which he won for THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT); and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which he won for MINDSCAN). Rob has won Japan's Seiun Award for best foreign novel three times (for END OF AN ERA, FRAMESHIFT, and ILLEGAL ALIEN), and he's also won the world's largest cash-prize for SF writing -- the Polytechnic University of Catalonia's 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficcion -- an unprecedented three times. In 2007, he received China's Galaxy Award for most favorite foreign author. He's also won twelve Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards ("Auroras"), an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, ANALOG magazine's Analytical Laboratory Award for Best Short Story of the Year, and the SCIENCE FICTION CHRONICLE Reader Award for Best Short Story of the Year. Rob's novels have been top-ten national mainstream bestsellers in Canada, appearing on the GLOBE AND MAIL and MACLEAN'S bestsellers' lists, and they've hit number one on the bestsellers' list published by LOCUS, the U.S. trade journal of the SF field. Rob is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences, teaches SF writing occasionally, and edits his own line of Canadian science-fiction novels for Red Deer Press. His novel FLASHFORWARD (Tor Books) was the basis for the ABC TV series of the same name. He enjoyed spending time on the set and wrote the script for episode 19 "Course Correction." His WWW trilogy, WAKE, WATCH, and WONDER (Ace Books), is all about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. Next up is TRIGGERS, April 2012. Set in Washington D.C., TRIGGERS is a science fiction political thriller about the nature of memory.

apr 2014
Flash Boys
A Wall Street Revolt
Michael LewisAuthor Bio

Flash Boys is Michael Lewis's version of Patterson's Dark Pools. It is equally terrifying, but in Lewis's typical populist flair. Lewis is such a successful author partly because he can take a topic like this and really humanize it, he crafts a narrative around the idea, and he drives home the one narrow slice of the story that he wants to tell. That isn't to say that any of it is wrong, I just dislike being force-fed. Something I think Patterson captured well in his own book, and which Lewis fails at, is how high frequency trading is being driven by the system itself. It is a consequence of technological progression, not an evil scheme. That isn't to say it's good, or healthy... obviously it causes volatility, and it opens the door to nefarious practices (which Lewis is happy to highlight extensively). But the point is that the intention isn't evil. Banks can't NOT take part in HFT. To me, that's the truly interesting story - not the Mr-Nice-Guy RBS Banker who wants to save the world because it's by-golly just the right thing to do.

I like this book. It's easy and fun and interesting and more than anything it's popular, so its getting a pretty wide bucket of people thinking about investing and computers and how the system works and where it's all heading, all for the first time - I like that a lot. But as far as getting an objective and slightly more holistic (or at least, less biased) view of HFT, I very much prefer Dark Pools.

Totally off topic, but there was one passage I really liked about why Russians were such good computer programmers. The argument was that in the '50's and '60's Russia was a mess, and any time spent actually using a computer was heavily rationed. So programmers had to learn to write their entire programs by hand, on paper. Then when they actually got to use the computer, they just typed it all up and ran the code. I can't imagine the kind of mental focus, foresight, and discipline it would take to be able to write any moderately complex code out by hand. But wow - take someone like that and give them a laptop, and just imagine what they could do. (Spoiler: I guess they could write out algorithms that trade securities each microsecond according to millions of individual and mutually dependent parameters.)

  1. Michael Lewis (born October 15, 1960) is an American non-fiction author and financial journalist. His bestselling books include Liar's Poker (1989), The New New Thing (2000), Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (2006), Panic (2008), Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood (2009), The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010), and Boomerang (2011). He has also been a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 2009. In 2014, his book Flash Boys, which looked at the high-frequency trading sector of Wall Street, was released.

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fiction: apr 2014
The Martian Andy Weir Author Bio

Just look at that cover! I took one look at it and knew it was worth reading. Okay - that's not entirely true - I knew it would be a gamble, but I certainly had high hopes. I'm a sucker for a great cover. And you know what? This book was awesome! It's a ton of fun. It's paced better than a Dan Brown novel, and you don't feel dirty or stupid for reading it. I don't know what else to say without ending up writing a synopsis of the book. I mean, it's about an astronaut that gets stuck on Mars, not much else to say there. It reads like a movie script - but think Apollo 13, not Armageddon. I don't know if any of the stuff I learned about Mars was true, or if the book even accurately describes the Martian environment or NASA protocol, etc., but it's a blast of a novel.

  1. ANDY WEIR was first hired as a programmer for a national laboratory at age fifteen and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He is also a lifelong space nerd and a devoted hobbyist of subjects like relativistic physics, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. The Martian is his first novel.

mar 2014
The Future of the Mind
The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind
Michio KakuAuthor Bio

One of the words I think I overuse when describing a lot of these books is "accessible", but it's the first thing I thought of when sitting down to write this. Kaku is a great writer, and he's put together a super interesting, relatively dumbed down, mass market description of where things are in neuroscience. Kaku is actually a physicist, which gave him an interesting perspective. He approached most of these questions in those terms, judging whether or not many future expectations in brain science would be possible, not based on our understanding of the brain, but on our understanding of the laws of physics.

One thing I liked in particular was Kaku's definition of consciousness: “The process of creating a model of the world using multiple feedback loops in various parameters [such as temperature, space and time] in order to accomplish a goal [such as finding shelter, mates or food]”. He actually goes on to quantify the experience of consciousness as well. I really liked this pragmatic approach, and helped me wrap a little bit more of my head around the experience of being conscious.

The book had lots of short little mentions of interesting experiments currently under way. My favorites would be the mind-melded mice (mice whose brains are hooked up via the internet), and the folks over at the Gallant Lab in Berkeley, who are making surprisingly (disturbingly?) good progress at being able to visualize a persons dreams (and therefore, thoughts).

Best of all, the book explicitly confronts the reader with a lot of uncomfortable questions. How will the world react to the ability to mind read? To create cloned selves? To remotely power a surrogate body? To live forever?

  1. Dr. Michio Kaku is the co-creator of string field theory, a branch of string theory. He received a B.S. (summa cum laude) from Harvard University in 1968 where he came first in his physics class. He went on to the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley and received a Ph.D. in 1972. In 1973, he held a lectureship at Princeton University. Michio continues Einstein’s search for a “Theory of Everything,” seeking to unify the four fundamental forces of the universe—the strong force, the weak force, gravity and electromagnetism. He is the author of several scholarly, Ph.D. level textbooks and has had more than 70 articles published in physics journals, covering topics such as superstring theory, supergravity, supersymmetry, and hadronic physics.

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fiction: mar 2013
It Stephen King

Probably six months ago, around Halloween, I saw this book on a listiscle of "scariest books you'll ever read". I lost the link, but the jist of it was that this book was not only frightening, but a very well put together piece of literature. At the time I think I was slogging through Zinn's People's History - so I was very much in the mood for some engrossing long form fiction, and I was intrigued by the idea of being scared from reading. I saw this movie when I was probably 8 or 10 years old, and I remember it absolutely terrified me for years. I didn't remember any of the plot, but I was scared of clowns through high school. 'It' to me, had defined my paradigm of fear. Add to all that that almost 1,000 5 star reviews on Amazon and I was sold. I was even excited about the preposterous length: 1,400 pages! I imagined reading this book to be some mini vacation I could go on every night. I looked forward to it for months, and then spent a couple months actually reading the book. And the result?

It is the worst work of fiction I have ever read. It is horrible in ways that are non-random. That is to say, I feel as though it were actually designed to disappoint me to the maximum effect. Here's why:

  • Because it's mainly pretty good. This seems like an odd thing to hold against this book, but it's true. If the book were trash from beginning to end, well, that would be a bummer, but that's all. (Plus, I probably would have just bailed on it after a few hundred bad pages). But for many of the first thousand or so pages, King writes a very compelling narrative, with relatable characters, and a cogent style. I typically don't like books where each chapter takes place in a different time, but King really pulled it off here. I was always curious to read more, and having two stories that take place 28 years apart was handled very well. The characters are diverse enough that everyone can find one to sympathize with, and many of the themes were very well done. Obviously It was fear, but King did well at personifying fear a bit differently for each child, and digging below the surface into where fear comes from, what motivates it, etc. King's exploration of childhood in general was well done, I liked the way he illustrated their world and their problems, almost as an invisible world "below" the adults. It was very well put together.
  • This book is not scary. Like I said at the top, I haven't been scared by books before, so I can't offer much analysis here except to say that I felt like I was sold a certain bill of goods, and it didn't deliver in this regard. I read this book over many months, exclusively at night, in bed, in the pitch dark, and I had exactly one dream about a clown murdering me. Not impressed.
  • The book consists of eight main characters: seven boys and one girl, Beverly. Each of the boys has a unique character; strengths, weaknesses, a colorful history, motivations, aspirations, etc. Beverly has nothing. Her "character" is that she's a girl. She's like Wendy Koopa, or Smurfette. Every single interaction of hers, or mention that she gets, or conversation she has, is to drive one of the boy's stories forward. She pretty much exists only so that the boys have someone to have a crush on. Apparently this isn't a rare thing, but for me to notice it means it must have been especially bad. Honestly, I thought it was jarringly conspicuous, and I found it very difficult to believe that the rest of the book could be well written when this one character was treated so one dimensionally.
  • The ending is horrible. Epically bad. The last 200 pages of this book are insultingly awful. It's like King just gave up and turned the writing duties over to a small child. No, worse. It's the kind of bad that can only be done on purpose, not happenstance, not even ineptitude. This was malice. IT goes from being the physical manifestation of insecurity and fear, represented by an entire town ... to being a space alien. I'm not kidding. Pennywise is a space alien trying who's pretty much just trying to impress (or destroy?) a galaxy sized turtle. Yes, turtle. A space turtle. A turtle from outer space. I just, I don't know what to say.
  • No really, the ending is horrible. Even if you can get over the space turtle and the ridiculously abstract metaphysical finale, it's Beverly that nails the coffin shut. Remember how her entire character was defined by her gender? Well, in the final battle with IT, each of the children contribute to defeating IT in their own way. (For instance, the kid with asthma sprays IT with his inhaler, etc). Well, Beverly doesn't do anything, she stays in the shadows and lets the boys do all the work. Her non-action is terribly conspicuous, but not surprising given how King treated her the rest of the book. Here's the mind blowing part: After they defeat IT, they're trying to get out of his labyrinthian lair and get lost, and Beverly finally springs into action. Her contribution is: To have sex with all seven of them, consecutively, in front of all of them, in order to bring them together as a group and give them the focus to escape. She's eleven. I'm not kidding. And even if you can get past how ridiculously uncomfortable it is to read about this eleven year old girl describing how the 5th boy was larger than the rest and stretching out her uterus but oh-my-god in a way that felt so good (!!!) - the mind blowing part is just how unnecessary it is. This scene comes out of nowhere. Nowhere. It isn't important in any way to any other scene. It doesn't tie out to anything else. If someone tore those couple pages out entirely, no one would ever notice. I really, I still don't know what to say.

Unequivocally the worst ending to anything I've read.

feb 2014
The Elephant Whisperer
My Life with the Herd in the African Wild
Lawrence Anthony

I had the impression that this book was going to be about a man that learns to communicate with elephants. I don't really know why I thought that, I guess that's what you get when you don't go beyond just the cover of the book. The book ended up being a touching description of life with the wild in the African bush. It's fantastically written, and more than once I found myself on Google looking up Anthony's Thula Thula wildlife reserve and pricing out a trip. That's really the strongest endorsement I can give the book, since Africa used to be on my strict no-fly list. Lawrence seems like a fantastic guy, continuously putting his life on the line to protect the African wildlife. More than anything, the book is an expression of his deep respect for both the wildlife and the geographic region. I was surprised and interested at the small amount of tribal politics that Anthony describes in his region as well. This is the kind of guy I wouldn't mind getting stuck in an elevator with. I feel like we could hang.

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feb 2014
Tales of Music and the Brain
Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia reads almost exactly like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks has decades of experience dealing with people that have particular neurological deficiencies, and he put together a collection of stories about those particularly related to music. (Several, in fact, are repeated from the Hat book). I have the same positive and negative thoughts on this book as I had on the other. It's very interesting, but not terribly accessible, and not super exciting. I often had to talk myself into getting back into it, just because I knew it was good for me, and to allow myself to get on to another book. The thing I remember most a month later is:

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dec 2013
Sy Montgomery

Birdology was a book I greatly enjoyed but that also drove me into crazy fits of frustration - it just isn't written for me. Sy Montgomery describes seven different bird families in great detail, very compellingly, and litters each chapter with fantastic little factoids making the reader genuinely want to seek out more information. It's a great book...

However for each interesting little fact or story that piqued my interest, there seemed to always be a corresponding passage that made my brain explode with frustration. Small things, but consistently, and they added up. For example:

My core problem here is that Montgomery doesn't draw a line between what her opinions are, and what she presents as fact. And while the book is super interesting, and engaging, and well paced, and funny, and probably 95%+ true, I couldn't get past some of the presentation. I couldn't help reading each anecdote and wondering if that was an objective description of an object, or if it was a very narrow and precise perspective of the object that happened to fit her narrative. I did enjoy reading this book, I'm glad this book exists and think other people would like it a lot, but it's just not compatible with how I think.

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fiction: dec 2013
Solaris Stanislaw Lem

This was an interesting short novel about, more or less, an alien life form that creates living personalities out of people's memories. (I.e., reanimates characters from a person's past). One thing this book did very well was make the reader wonder about what kind of consciousness or atomic makeup makes something a person. This alien re-creates the main character's long-dead wife. She seems normal in most other aspects, but has no memory of the last 10 years (including having killed herself), and doesn't understand how she got into her situation. I thought the book did a great job respectfully exploring the topic of what constitutes an identity. If it were possible to duplicate every cell in my body perfectly, would that person be me? If I could use my genetic material to create another person, would that person be me? If I had a stroke that caused me to lose my memory of the last 5 years, would I be the same person I had been before the accident?

Solaris creates a great narrative around these kinds of questions. The best passage in the book, in my opinion, is below.

“Listen,” she said, “there’s one other thing. Am I. . . really like. . . her?”
“You were,” I said, “but now I don’t know any more.”
“What do you mean. . . ?”
She got to her feet and looked at me with eyes wide open.
“You’ve already taken her place.”
“And you’re sure it’s not her but me that you. . . Me?”
“Yes. You. I don’t know. I’m afraid that if you were really her, I’d not be able to love you.”
“Why not?”
“Because I did something terrible.”
“To her?”
“Yes. When we were—”
“Don’t say.”
“Why not?”
“Because I want you to know that I’m not her.”

dec 2013
Beyond Religion
Ethics for a Whole New World
The Dalai Lama

I didn't really know what to expect going in, but the Dalai Lama impressed my socks off on this book. Obviously he is a deeply religious man, but the book absolutely stays true to its title. This is not a book about religion. He neither promotes his own religion nor denigrates any others. In fact, he has many, many kind things to say about the other religions, but focuses entirely on a necessarily-secular view of ethics based entirely on compassion. Many times throughout the book, he reenforces his points with science (!), and a handful of times makes reference to the latest developments in neuroscience and makes several comments about how excited he is about the advances in that field (particularly about the insight it can give us to ourselves and our own consciousness). I could hang with this guy. This is officially my go-to answer next time I ever get asked "if you could eat dinner with one person living or dead, who would it be?"

Two quotes I thought were great:

Time and geography will always impose limits on how much wealth anyone can succeed in accruing in a single lifetime. Given this natural limit it seems wiser to set one's own limits through the exercise of contentment. In contrast, when it comes to acquiring mental riches the potential is limitless. Here, where there is no natural limit, it is appropriate not to be contented with what you have, but to constantly strive for more. Unfortunately, most of us do the exact opposite. We are never quite satisfied with what we have materially, but we tend to be thoroughly complacent about our mental riches.


All pleasures based on sensory stimulation derive at some level from the satisfaction of a craving, and if we become obsessed with satisfying that craving this will eventually turn into a kind of suffering.

This guy knows what he's doing.

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fiction: nov 2013
American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis

Another horrible fiction book. This one is pretty famous too, I definitely don't see what the big deal is. This book has exactly two different kinds of chapters. 1) Chapters that are surprisingly long and intolerably boring, where the main character, Patrick Bateman, describes what everyone around him is wearing, where they are going to dinner, and then something about Les Miserable, all using exclusively run-on sentences. And 2) Chapters where Patrick Bateman murders prostitutes in the most grotesque, explicit, horrifying ways I've ever seen written down. Oh, I forgot, there are also two chapters where Bateman reviews the entire discographies of musicians he likes: Whitney Huston, and Huey Lewis & The News.

The book succeeds only in that I'm totally convinced that this dude is a 100% crazy sociopath, but it fails miserably as a compelling narrative. I only made it all the way to the end in the dim hope that it would redeem itself with some crazy twist. What a waste of time. Below is an excerpt that pretty much sums up the experience of reading this book. Try to make it all the way to the bottom without killing yourself. Seriously, I didn't make this up, this was just a fairly random quote. There are hundreds more just like it.

Plus there are four women at the table opposite ours, all great-looking—blond, big tits: one is wearing a chemise dress in double-faced wool by Calvin Klein, another is wearing a wool knit dress and jacket with silk faille bonding by Geoffrey Beene, another is wearing a symmetrical skirt of pleated tulle and an embroidered velvet bustier by, I think, Christian Lacroix plus high-heeled shoes by Sidonie Larizzi, and the last one is wearing a black strapless sequined gown under a wool crepe tailored jacket by Bill Blass. Now the Shirelles are coming out of the speakers, “Dancing in the Street,” and the sound system plus the acoustics, because of the restaurant’s high ceiling, are so loud that we have to practically scream out our order to the hardbody waitress—who is wearing a bicolored suit of wool grain with passementerie trim by Myrone de Prémonville and velvet ankle boots and who, I’m fairly sure, is flirting with me: laughs sexily when I order, as an appetizer, the monkfish and squid ceviche with golden caviar; gives me a stare so steamy, so penetrating when I order the gravlax potpie with green tomatillo sauce I have to look back at the pink Bellini in the tall champagne flute with a concerned, deadly serious expression so as not to let her think I’m too interested.

nov 2013
A Short Stay in Hell
Steven Peck

While less than 10% as long as my last fiction book 1Q84, this book as at least 10 times better. More than that. A Short Stay in Hell is phenomenal. Crazy good. I'm not sure where you draw the line between "short book" and "short story" - but I've never really been into either. I always felt (though not from any experience) that short stories wouldn't be engaging enough, or develop enough character or motivations for me to really get on board. Well, I guess I was wrong.

This book explores the concept of infinity and immortality in interesting ways, from the perspective of a man that has died and is now trapped in (an otherwise very pleasant) "hell", consisting of few other people and a nearly infinite amount of gibberish books, of which he must find a single one, unique to him. The themes I enjoyed:

nov 2013
Brain on Fire
My Month of Madness
Susannah Cahalan

Brain of Fire is a remarkable first person account of Susannah Cahalan's months-long battle with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a very recently identified auto-immune disease where a person's body attacks their brain. This book is a trained journalist's honest and objective description of the manic, psychotic, and hallucinogenic symptoms of having one's brain distort and swell. In short, it is the exact opposite of Proof of Heaven.

I loved this book because Cahalan does such a fantastic job of impressing on the reader how fragile our perception of reality is, and how subjectively that perception is driven by our brain. The very slightest imbalance or environmental change to our brain can cause, as she horribly experienced and described: wild visions, crazy mood swings, horrible seizures, memory loss, memory fabrication, etc. During this time Cahalan turns into a completely different person, with only small slivers of her original personality coming through. Even now, after making what her doctors consider a full recovery, she remains insecure about whether or not she really is the same old Susannah.

I especially liked the last part of the book, where she considers how her disease gave her symptoms straight out of the movie The Exorcist. (In fact, her family can no longer watch that movie as it reminds them too much of her while in the hospital). Cahalan wonders explicitly how many people throughout history have been burned as possessed demons, when all they needed were steroids and some fresh blood plasma. Indeed, it was terrifying to learn that her specific condition was only identified in 2007, and took many, many doctors several weeks of dedicated in-patient effort to eventually diagnose.

This really sounded like a nightmare scenario for a 24 year old girl (!). But it was a fantastic read, and I'm so happy that she was able to share her story in such a way. Our brains are incredible organs. I've read many books below that say as much, and even the Oliver Sachs book discussed incredible individual cases (in a super sterile, medical, third person perspective), but Calahan's first hand story humanizes the brain's power in an elegant and humble way.

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nov 2013
Automate This
How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World
Christopher Steiner

This was a fun, accessible and engaging account of how algorithms and computers are changing the world. It was broad, not deep. The book discussed the origins of algorithms (which the author uses fairly interchangeably with 'computer programming' in general), and then discussed the myriad ways that are taking over pretty much every industry and application of modern life. The examples were fun, but not too surprising (healthcare, dating, finance). I'm really not sure who the target audience of the book is. I figure anyone with any knowledge of computer science would already know most of this stuff, and anyone without knowledge of computer science would really never pickup a book with this title/subtitle/cover. Anyway, for me two things stuck out:

The first was I was a bit surprised with how much historical innovation starts on Wall Street. Even early bankers (interesting example of Rothschild knowing results of Waterloo battle well before British Gov, due to his bond arbitrage strategy and message pigeons). A surprising amount of computer tech was either developed or significantly enhanced by Wall Streeters trying to build an edge in trading speed/strategy.

The second thing wasn't so much a lesson from the book, but more so a reminder to get my butt in gear to learn some computer programming. Steiner makes it very clear that the jobs of the future (if not already the present) will primarily belong to those who can best interface with, and take advantage of, and most of all further develop, our burgeoning technology. We have a very far way yet to go in these fields, and there is much yet to learn and accomplish. While I've likely missed the boat on mastering computer science, I'm not yet too old to pick up a little programming know-how, and it will clearly pay dividends.

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nov 2013
A People’s History of the United States
1492 to Present
Howard Zinn

In the first chapter of this incredible work, Zinn breaks down his motivations and intent behind writing A People's History; which I enjoyed so much I want to replicate in part here:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex...

Thus, in that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history, I prefer to try to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees...

My point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners. Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present. And the lines are not always clear. In the long run, the oppressor is also a victim...

Still, understanding the complexities, this book will be skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest...

That, being as blunt as I can, is my approach to the history of the United States. The reader may as well know that before going on.

And so begins the best history book I'm likely to ever read. Beginning with Columbus and ending with the modern era, Zinn describes each major period in our history from the viewpoint of the oppressed.

As evidenced elsewhere on this site, I was at best marginally aware of the standard American history before reading this book. Given that Zinn circumvents the standard narrative, it's pretty fair to say that everything here was new to me. While reading this book I discovered again and again, to an embarrassing degree, how clueless I was about the foundational events that have shaped our past.

For a while I thought I'd review this book by writing all the things I learned about it down, but that really wouldn't work. Some chapters I literally felt like I was highlighting more text than I wasn't. (Plus, since Zinn is often used as a textbook for history courses, the internet seems pretty full of chapter-by-chapter summaries anyway). I think instead I'd rather just focus on the parts and themes that spoke to me the most, which were:

Overall the books as fantastic, and should be required reading for every high schooler in the country. It wasn’t perfect though - towards the end I really felt like Zinn got way too preachy, and I felt like he forgot that his perspective is not the only one. What I liked so much about the beginning of the book (his mission to tell the untold stories) turned into, ironically, a denunciation of everything else. He seemed to forget or disregard that the lines between good and bad are not always clear, especially during the moment. It’s easy from our perspective now as the undisputed dominant world power to look back with disgust at some of our historical actions - but it does the audience a disservice to condemn those events without considering the implications of having gone with the alternative. Most disturbingly, Zinn advocates several times for what I would consider ridiculously radical policy changes (e.g., a 90% flat tax on the wealthy), without substantially defending those policies or their implications.

Again though, a fantastic and enlightening book.

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oct 2013
The Everything Store
Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
Brad Stone

Mike Daisey's book on Amazon was horrible, so when I saw Brad Stone had one coming out (and previewed in a great Bloomberg article), I knew this was my shot at a great Amazon book, and wasn't disappointed. This book drove home the following few points:

oct 2013
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
And Other Clinical Tales
Oliver Sacks

This book is a series of stories about people with abnormal neurological conditions. It's incredibly interesting. Primarily, it serves for me as a reminder that everything, everything, everything happens inside our brains. It's remarkably easy to go through life thinking that the world is a concrete, fixed thing. It's easy to think that it is exactly what we see, smell, taste, hear and touch. But that's only what our brains subjectively experience it as. In How The Mind Works, Pinker wrote extensively about how everything we see is essentially a hallucination - our brain "sees" shapes and figures and then fills in the rest with whatever it thinks is actually there. This book is a reminder that our brain does that with every sense we have, and that the smallest neural abnormality can turn a person's experience of the world completely upside down.

What then, is the world actually like?

Most interesting chapters/abnormalities:

Those were probably my favorite, but a pretty good summary of the different chapters can be found here for more detail.

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fiction: oct 2013
1Q84 Haruki Murakami

Probably the longest book I've read in years, if not ever. I just finished this tonight and already don't know what happened or why I should care. It was very entertaining, but I felt disappointed with the ending. The author left a lot unresolved. That, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's a great quote in the book (a real quote, I believe) by Chekov, that says "once a gun has been introduced into a story, it must be fired." Well, the gun in 1Q84 is never fired. And I'm fine with that, with the literal gun never being used. But Murakami has a lot of figurative guns in this story - a whole bunch - and those are never fired either. Entire characters with complex motivations and back stories never seem totally filled out. Rather, they just sort of drop off. I don't know, hard to justify this as time well spent. That said, I think this book won a bunch of awards... and I'm the first person to admit I don't know a thing about fiction... so maybe I just didn't get it.

sep 2013
Eating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer

Most of this book was sadly, very predictable. Foer condemns the way we treat animals. At one point he brings up turkeys in particular, calling out that farm turkeys are a specially bred species that we've tweaked to grow full size in 39 days (early turkey adolescence) - these things are so mutated and deformed (from us selecting turkeys with huge breasts, thighs, etc) that they literally can't survive on their own. They can't fly or hop, they can barely move. They would die from exposure if left alone. Many are "born" dead - and many more die from abnormalities/sickness, and then even more die from more horrific reasons, like being trampled, suffocating under other turkeys, etc. Foer makes this sound disgusting, but that's cheap. It's cheap to take advantage of the repulsive gut reaction that most people will have when they hear this. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but it's cheap to just rely on that and not dig in to the more complicated issues.

Isn't the holy grail of protein farming the ability for us to just outright clone animal muscle? What if we could just grow turkey breast in a lab? It's being worked on, and we're almost there. And while many folks have many reasons to be terrified of 100% bioengineered food, no one reputable seems to be calling that unethical, or immoral. But why? What's the difference between turkey parts we grow in a chemistry lab and turkey parts we grow on a turkey? Arguably it's the idea of consciousness, but I'm not sure I buy that. (And Foer doesn't really bother to approach it). Foer himself seems to admit that these farmed turkeys are barely even conscious in the first place... hell, they're only alive for 39 days. And if consciousness is what makes this immoral and disgusting, why is that so? Why does consciousness, in whatever capacity that these turkeys seem to have it, matter? And why would it matter above the needs of conscious humans? I mean - we have 7 billion people on Earth. Is it ethically wrong to propagate this synthetic species of turkey in order to feed them? (Or, even, just to allow them to live more comfortably?)

The best part of the book is actually written by someone else, a PETA member, as a counterpoint to another side letter written by a (pro-meat, duh) farmer. The PETA guy gets the closest to arguing the philosophical points, comparing the meat industry to colonial-era plantation slavery. (He also makes fantastic points about the sustainability effects of dealing with our over-populated planet). I don't think the slavery argument stands up here, but it was refreshing to finally hear someone try to get to the root of the issue.

I certainly don't have the answer to all this. I think it's a complicated philosophical question, and I doubt there really is a right or a wrong answer, though it's absolutely worth debating. But that's the question Foer needs to be asking here, and never does. Instead, he takes the lazy route of just describing factory farms in ways that any reasonable person would find repulsive.

...Still though, I've found it hard to get some of it out of my head, and I've thought twice about some of my orders when at cheap-o meat places.

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aug 2013
Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep
David K. Randall

Light lifting. This was like a Malcolm Gladwell book on sleep - but not as well written. Not to say it was bad - I certainly enjoyed it - but this was more like 10 sequential magazine articles than it was a book. It just barely skims the surface of many topics, hits the talking points, and moves on. I'd really like something a lot deeper, but can't complain too much about this offering. I don't think there was anything here I hadn't seen before - but worth calling out:

aug 2013
Time Reborn
From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe
Lee Smolin

I need to revisit this book again later. I didn't have the time, focus, or energy to do it justice. The central idea is that time is the only immutable, constant force in the universe. Time moves in one direction, and has a beginning and an end, and every single other thing varies; e.g., all the "constants" of physics are not constant at all.

Everything about this book should appeal to me, but none of it did. I think it was over my head, and I got rather bored with it. I'm really not sure what the problem was, but it was pretty disappointing. I'm not ready to say it's a bad book - I don't think it is, but I couldn't really recommend it, yet. I'll give it another shot someday when I'm ready to take it more seriously.

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aug 2013
The Basque History of the World
The Story of a Nation
Mark Kurlansky

We're going back to Donostia in a couple weeks, and I thought it would make sense to check out some history from the region. It always comes back to Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein observation that the more you know, the more you remember. I thought it was great - though a little bias toward the Basques (which was also reflected in reviews of the book elsewhere). Still, as usual with books like this, I was pretty surprised with the magnitude of things I was totally unaware of. Anyway, a few of the things I managed to remember...

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jul 2013
Legacy of Ashes
The History of the CIA
Tim Weiner

It's criminal how much formal education I have, and how little basic American history I know. This book helped fill some of those gaping chasms. The book was as interesting as it was horrifying, for both our institutional ineptitude at intelligence, as well as for our total disregard of sovereign rights and international agreements. It seems like for 70 years our intelligence agency has been remarkably short sighted, and the volume and severity of times that has come back around to bite us is unbelievable.

Anyway, here are some of my notes while reading it.

jul 2013
Animal Wise
The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
Virginia Morell

Animal Wise is a journalist's investigative research into the minds of animals - how they act, learn, solve problems, and how they think. It was interesting, though I expected it to go a bit deeper into whatever the nature of consciousness is. Similar to Biocentrism, seems a bit odd to write an entire book that revolves around the nature of consciousness without really exploring what we think that means. Morell gets around that by focusing instead on the terminology "do/how animals think?" rather than "are animals conscious?", which is a somewhat meaningful distinction, but still... I feel like you shouldn't start conversations about animal emotions if you're not prepared to take a stance on what exactly you think consciousness and free will are.

Anyway, turns out animals are quite a bit more intelligent than I thought... or... at least they're very intelligent in ways I didn't realize. Dolphins especially, which seem to roam around in gangs, and communicate well enough with each other to pretty much say "let's go beat up those other dudes over there and take their women!". Dolphins just barely come short of being able to communicate outright with humans. They're fantastic learners, and can put the patters we give them together in meaningful ways.

Elephants are super smart too, and driven by an elder matriarch who, as far as we can tell, guides the herd based on her judgements and extensive memories and experience, rather than on any kind of genetic instincts.

Speaking of elephants, Morell briefly touched on animal's brain sizes (and I think how, as a % of body weight, a dolphins brain is the biggest after humans) - but I would have liked more discussion as to the different biologies of animal brains. I've seen compelling evidence before that the size of a neocortex matters greatly as far as what you're able to learn, etc - so why wouldn't an elephant (or whale, or anything with a massive brain) be any smarter? [Potentially those animals don't actually have massive brains, I'm not sure, but it seems improbable that human brains are the largest by mass].

I don't really think the book had much of an agenda. I say that in a good way. It wasn't really about 'hey, maybe it's immoral to eat animals' or anything like that. I think it allowed the reader to make those kinds of conclusions if they wanted to, and it certainly provided evidence or encouragement for that kind of a response, but I don't really think that's what Morell was going for. I think the idea was more along the lines of 'hey, maybe more people should be taking a closer look at this, because there's a lot here that we don't understand and could stand to learn from'. Anyway, I really enjoyed it.

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jul 2013
How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe
Robert Lanza

This book starts off very strong but then totally goes off the rails. After the first quarter I was ready to recommend it to friends, but now, not so much. The main idea here is that the universe is not anything like the standard physical model that we all more-or-less understand it to be. The universe isn't a thing that exists, but rather it's a framework that is created by our conscious mind. The first 80% of this I can actually buy. Lanza actually kicks things off in a really accessible way talking about how what we see and hear doesn't actually exist the way that we perceive them to. Those things are just sensations based on a very narrow and particular set of circumstances (vibrations from 20-20K decibels, light in 400-800nm wavelengths).

Most of the ideas were very interesting, and merited good discussion. For me, I lost it because 1) every third chapter or so covers his past and personal life experiences, and has absolutely nothing to do with the message of the book at all - and 2) by the end of the book he's arguing that biocentrism is the only possible right answer, which is just an idiotic thing to say.

I particularly liked the ideas he had about time - it just being a structure for how humans observe change, and not necessarily the two dimensional march forward that we seem to perceive it as. He said time was like playing a record. The entire record exists the whole time, but you can only hear/experience it one note at a time. That's not an easy concept to wrap your head around - and annoyingly it's pretty much an impossible one to try to prove or discuss with others, but I think it's an interesting concept, and I've been thinking about it lately. It's just interesting to think about the entire continuum of time existing all at once. I think it actually makes life much more salient. What if every decision you made, every single action you ever take, doesn't just affect the present... but what if it's written in stone, forever? What if the record gets played over and over? It's just kind of odd. (And, well, you'd need to get over the fact that if this actually were a record, almost by definition free will would need to be an illusion). Anyway, I've always thought of life as an orchestra performance. Something that happens once, live. thinking of it as a record kind of changes things.

Lastly, for a book entirely centered around consciousness, he never bothered to define it! That drove me crazy. Are cats conscious? Are cows? Ants? Plants? Rivers?

Lanza outlines his case throughout the book using his following principals, which also act as a good summary.

1. What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness, an external reality, if it existed, would by definition have to exist in space, but this is meaningless because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.

2. Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.

3. The behavior of subatomic particles indeed all particles and objects, is inextricably linked to an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they, at best, exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.

4. Without consciousness, matter dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded conciousness only could have existed in a probability state.

5. The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine tuned for life, which makes perfect sense, as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The universe is simply the complete spacio-temporal logic of the self.

6. Time does not have a real existence outside of animal sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.

7. Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.

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fiction: jun 2013
The Dinner Herman Koch

Wow, this was an excellent book. Fantastically written, and amazingly translated. (Actually, it's possible that only one of those things are true). This book had compelling characters with very surprising developments. It was thought provoking. Most of all, it was just fantastically well written. The structure that the "dinner" framework provides is well executed. I'm not sure what else to say about it: a great book for aspiring writers.

jun 2013
How The Mind Works
Steven Pinker

This book is loooooong, and dense, and relatively often strays off topic; I feel like it would benefit from a more aggressive editor. That said, it's quite comprehensive. I wouldn't recommend it to someone as a first read on the topic though, because they'd never be motivated enough to make it through to the end. The first three quarters of the book are largely pretty slow, with a couple bright spots mixed in. The end is pretty great though.

fiction: may 2013
The Art of Fielding Chad Harbach

This was pretty much, if not entirely, a waste of time. The book is on a lot of best-of-2012 lists, which I really don't understand. I'm not exactly target demo for a lot of these fiction books, but I really don't see what the draw was here. The characters were surprisingly one dimensional. They all seemed to go through pretty predictable development arcs, but those arcs didn't even really lead anywhere.

Tangent: I think the reason we enjoy art, and especially narrative driven art like books and movies, is at least partly because of the idea that through empathy you can prepare your brain to understand complex, novel situations, without having to actually experience them yourselves. Death, love, betrayal, etc are all very hard things to get "right", and costly to endure. But if you're able to experience those things through are (or dreams), you're presumably better off for when they inevitably happen to you. This idea was well developed and supported in How The Mind Works.

This book prepared me for nothing. It was marginally entertaining to read, but I'm truly no better for it. The cover is a different story though! Not many designers are able to actually pull off all-typography covers, but I think this one looks nice and even captures some of the spirit of the book. Well done.

apr 2013
In The Plex
How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
Steven Levy

I have had this book on my list for a long time. I first heard about it a year or so ago, when it was released, and it was pretty well acclaimed. I've long wanted to know a bit more about Google, and I think the only reason it took so long for this to finally make the cut is because the cover is so horrible. Sometimes books get different covers when they're released in different markets, and I actually searched for for an alternate to use because this one is so bad. Ug.

Anyway, I'm glad I did make it through. The whole thing was well written and engaging. It truly does seem like a unique company, being run by very unique founders. Highlights:

Unfortunately, the book didn't answer the one resounding question I've always had about Google: "Seriously, how do they make money? Like, for real?" Look, I've seen the income statement, I understand it's all advertising. The part I don't understand is how horrible those ads are. In the last ten years I'd be blown away if I ever clicked on more than 3 of them, and 2 of those were probably on accident. Google ads (adsense/adwords - not referring to doubleclick display ads) are HORRIBLE. Really, really bad. And Youtube? The little ads that stick up during videos get closed immediately 100% of the time. ALWAYS. Gmail ads? I've never clicked them. Ever. Not once, not even by accident. Google is horrible at advertising. Again, I'm saying this as someone with taste looking at their actual ads, not looking at their balance sheet. And I just don't understand. I really don't know where the money is coming from. Either the music is just going to stop for them one of these days when advertisers realized that Google isn't doing shit for them, or I just really don't get it.

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fiction: mar 2013
Reamde Neal Stephenson

Fiction books are like getting drunk. Before you start, it seems like it might be a good idea. You owe it to yourself, right? It sounds so appealing - just relax, lean back, and have some fun. Stop concentrating. Take your mind off things. Then, once you get going, you can't stop. You're hooked, you crave more. At its peak, you think, "this is awesome - why don't I do this more often? I need to loosen up more!". Now it's the next day. I'm done with the book, and I just feel like an idiot. What did I gain from this book? What do I have to show for all the time I spent reading it? Nothing at all. In less than a month I'll have forgotten every word. Even the cover sucks.

feb 2013
SEAL Team Six
Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper
Howard Wasdin

This was a pretty self-indulgent read, not much practical stuff to learn here but it was exciting to hear the memoirs of someone in one of the most exclusive, elite military groups in the world. It was crazy to hear the training they go through, and I was interested in learning more about the kind of person you need to be for that to be appealing, and to be successful at it. I like trying to think about the things that makes this sort of person tick. Why was Wasdin so driven to be in the SEALs? By the end of it, I'm pretty sure it didn't have too much to do with patriotism (not to say he isn't a patriot), but more to do with some unyielding drive to be the best. Anyway, it was surprisingly interesting, especially the inside perspective he had on the Somalian conflict.

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fiction: feb 2013
Truth in Advertising John Kenney

I went off on a kick of several fiction books recently, and got exactly what I expected. This one was okay enough. It was pretty funny, and there were a few particularly well written passages that I enjoyed, but those spots came much less often than during a Barbara Kingsolver novel.

feb 2013
On Intelligence
How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to Truly Intelligent Machines
Jeff Hawkins

Getting right to it, Jeff Hawkins seems like a snob - it was hard to get over that. I spent most of the first half of the book looking for reasons to disagree with him, just because he seems like the kind of guy you'd really hate to get stuck in an elevator with. I'll bet him and Nasim Taleb would get along just great. Anyway, despite my best (and his own) efforts, Hawkins doesn't offer too much to disagree with. I expected this book to actually disagree with Kurzweil's take on electronic intelligence, and I think Hawkins would say that it does - but frankly, I don't. I think they're both largely saying the same thing, but Hawkins is trying to make distinctions which really don't matter that much. For instance, he spends a terribly long amount of time talking about how physical computer hardware isn't like the brain, how the analogy that folks like Kurzweil is wrong. Yeah, duh. Who cares? That doesn't say anything about our ability to recreate intelligence in software systems. Hawkins is just trying to stir the pot. Whatever. There are four things I specifically wanted to call out:

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feb 2013
The Righteous Mind
Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
Jonathan Haidt

This is another book by Jonathan Haidt, whose first book The Happiness Hypothesis, was pretty solid. I saw this book at a Barnes and Noble in North Beach CA and from the cover knew I'd have to read it. This book seems like a logical sequel to his first. Haidt continues his metaphor that the brain is like a rider on an elephant - where reason is a jockey atop an elephant, looking around and trying to rationally decide where to lead it - an then the elephant (intuition, morality) is the actual thing doing the walking, and for the most part it goes wherever it damn well pleases. I think he expands this metaphor a bit from the prior book, and then goes on to build out a really solid foundational theory of morality. His premise is pretty much that we all understand morality in very similar ways, but we (through nature/nurture) end up expressing those morals in different ways. It's a well organized book, and while I don't really read very much about morality, a lot of the ideas here were new to me.

There was a fair amount of unsurprising discussion about how easily people justify what they (their elephant) want to believe. Haidt frames this as "can/must". When you want to believe something, you ask yourself "Can I believe it?". When you want to disagree with something you ask yourself "Must I believe it?". In both cases, you only need one piece of evidence to be satisfied.

My favorite quote from the book was pretty early on. Haidt spends the first half of the book talking about reason vs. intuition, and then the second half discussing the implications of those on politics and religion. On reason, Haidt had several thoughts that I've never come across before, and liked very much. I thought the below was fantastic:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.

... I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with out gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning; for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgements, but they're often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any individual's ability to reason.

... each individual reasoner is really good at one thing, finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth seeking reasoning; particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning power to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it's so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

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fiction-review: feb 2013
When Genius Failed Roger Lowenstein

Decided to fiction-review this because we had been talking about LTCM in class quite a bit and I wanted to freshen up. It was interesting reading just how much Goldman Sachs gutted LTCM towards the end - Long Term was trying to firesale some assets to them so they let GS go through their books, and GS just turned around and sort sold LTCM's positions, lowering the value further knowing that the value would continue plummeting as LTCM trying to get out of them. That's like an EMT showing up at the scene of an accident, and just taking everyone's wallets and then driving off.

feb 2013
The Antidote
Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
Oliver Burkeman

The main idea in this book is pretty much that optimism is overrated. Not entirely useless, but overrated. Rather than presenting a coherent logical case for any main thesis though, Burkeman uses the book to skip around exploring different ideas where negativity and skepticism and stoicism can be useful tools. There are a few things in this book that I wasn't a huge fan of, or possibly didn't really understand, though I did appreciate the philosophical discussion and Buddhist overtones. Most of the book was great - a few things that stuck out:

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jan 2013
Flight Behavior
Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver is a fantastic author. She puts together incredibly believable and memorable characters, and compelling narratives. This was a very well put together novel - I had seen some initial press about it being about climate change, and I kind of expected it to be a liberal scolding on the subject. Instead, it was an eye opening look into the other side - painting climate change challenges from perspective of southern farming family with more pressing problems to deal with.

Anyway, it was obviously fiction, so I don't have any takeaway's or anything, but the book was a pleasure to read from top to bottom, and I'd recommend it strongly to anyone, regardless of their position, if any, on climate change.

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jan 2013
How to Create a Mind
The Secret of Human Thought Revealed
Ray Kurzweil

Wow, this was a good one. Several times along the way I had to stop reading this so I could just sit and think about the implications of it. This book puts human intelligence into a very tangible context, taking almost all of the mystic out of it and boiling it down to a formal model that we can work to replicate and improve with technology. I don't yet know enough about this all to really challenge the claims, or enough to judge their plausibility for myself - but if just half of what's in this book is true, the next 100 years are going to be the most turbulent in the history of our species. Kurzweil compellingly argues that it's possible to replicate a brain with computers, and that once we do it will quickly become possible to essentially make ourselves super smart and immortal - oh, and we'll all be machines. Good times. A few memorable points:

This will likely go down as my favorite book of 2013, it was really fantastic and I'll probably check out Kurzweil's several other books as well (along with another I already have lined up that criticizes his claims). Maybe best of all, it gave me plenty of great investment ideas as well. Win-win!

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jan 2013
The Art and Science of Delay
Frank Partnoy

This book describes many different scenarios and effects of waiting that are typically pretty interesting. The book is a decent narrative, and I think there is an effort to make an overarching point about a person's ability to wait - but I wasn't totally sold on it. Obviously waiting is often good - but it goes without saying that you can wait too long sometimes - and then book makes a clumsy attempt at teasing that out that I didn't really buy into. That said, there was plenty of interesting stuff. Some highlights:

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jan 2013
The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else
Chrystia Freeland

For me, the most interesting part of this book was the discussion of the new super-wealthy. Not necessarily how they lived, or how/why they were so much wealthier than the plain-old-regular rich people just under them, but how globalization has really changed the way that these people get rich. It compares our current economic environment globally with the industrial revolution and the gilded age, and makes a strong case that the growing global (and American) income inequality gap is a bad thing.

Particularly interesting was a great argument for how as historical income inequality rises, social mobility falls. The successful class creates artificial moats to protect themselves, stifles innovation and always leads to economic failure. The example of La Cerrata in Venice was very interesting - I'd like to read more on that but a quick search came up pretty empty.

There were two fantastic quotes that I flagged. The first one is Thomas Jefferson:

We have no paupers, the great mass of our population is of laborers. Our rich, who can live without labor, whether manual or professional, being few and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class posses property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are able to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families. The wealthy on the other hand, and those of their ease, know nothing of what the Europeans call luxury. They have only somewhat more of the comforts and decencies of life than those who furnish them. Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?

And then 100 or so years later, from Mark Twain:

In America, nearly every man has his dream, his pet scheme, whereby he is to advance himself socially or pecuniarily. It is a characteristic that is both bad and good, for both the individual and the nation. Good, because it allows neither to stand still, but drives both forever on toward some point or other which is ahead - not behind, nor at one's side. Bad, because the chosen point is often badly chosen, and then the individual is racked. The aggregations of such cases affects the nation, and so is bad for the nation. Still, it is a trait which is of course better for people to have, and sometimes suffer from, than to be without.

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dec 2012
A Romance of Many Dimensions
Edwin Abbot

I forget where I first heard of this book... it was referenced somewhere and sounded intriguing.

There really isn't very much to like. The book is about someone that likes in two dimensions, who then visits a one dimensional world and then also a three dimensional world. Most of the "story" is really simplistic and grating - the writing style is very annoying, and pretty shoddy. It's also hilariously antiquated (i.e., misogynistic). The book was really short, but still felt like it was 75% filler.

To its credit though, it does get you thinking about the 4th dimension though, which I imagine is the whole point. It talks about how a 1D "square" would have 2 "sides", a 2D square has 4 sides, a 3D square has 6 sides, so a 4D square would have 8 sides. I don't know, I guess I sat and thought about 4D or a little while, so... mission accomplished? Still, I really couldn't recommend this to anyone.

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dec 2012
The 5 Love Languages
The Secret to Love That Lasts
Gary D Chapman

Getting married soon, so I checked this out on a recommendation. There's plenty to like, but I don't think I found it particularly useful.

To start, I really liked the characterization of love as a choice. The author doesn't spend too much time on this, and I think he could have expanded much more on it, but he frames love as a thoughtful decision that you make, as a way you decide to feel towards another person. Certainly I don't think his intention here is that anyone can just decide to love anyone else... I would say that there are some behavior incompatibilities that might be too overwhelming... but I appreciated the characterization of love as a behavior choice because that implicitly defines the success of a relationship as the result of the cognizant effort that both partners put into it - not just as some magical chemistry between them that either happens or not.

Unfortunately, towards the end things start going off the rails a bit. He breaks out a few anecdotes where he "helped" women that sounded like they were in pretty horrible, borderline abusive relationships, and he pretty much framed things to be their fault - they weren't speaking their husband's love language, so the guy's love tank was empty, so that's why he was such a dick. That seems like pretty shitty advice. If love is a choice, it seems fair to me to advise someone to end a relationship when one of the partners is no longer making an effort. If one of them wants to throw good money after bad and try to coax the other one into loving them again, that's fine I guess, but that should also be a choice, not a responsibility.

As for the actual five languages, I thought the discussion was interesting, but not terribly insightful or enlightening. He spends a lot of time talking about 'the first two years' of a relationship, when everything clicks and couples feel swept away with love/limerence, and how that always seems to disappear right after couples get married. The unspoken elephant in the room, for me, was the glaringly obvious advice to not marry someone after just two years (or christ, six months), but that of course was never mentioned.

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nov 2012
Proof of Heaven
A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Eben Alexander

This is the most intellectually dishonest book I've ever read. Ever. You can imagine my excitement seeing the pitch for this book... a neuroscientist's view on spirituality? The back cover pitches it as some kind of objective look at whatever it is he experienced, "proof" of a miracle, etc etc. "Proof"! Scientists don't throw that word around lightly. I would have never gone anywhere near a book like this if not for the fact that it was written by a neuroscientist. I was optimistic I guess. I expected science. That is, I expected objective, scientific evidence. Falsify-able hypothesis. Controlled studies. Explanations of alternative possibilities. Etc.

Instead, here's what I got. Excuse the length here - but these two quotes really sum things up pretty well.

Remember who's talking to you right now, I'm not a soft sentimentalist. I know what death looks like. ... I know my biology, and while I'm no physicist, I'm no slouch at that either. I know the difference between fantasy and reality, and I know that the experience I'm struggling to give you the vaguest, most completely unsatisfactory picture of, was the single most real experience of my life.

And: (emphasis mine)

… at the time I knew perfectly well that what Susanna was telling me [about a near death experience] was a grief induced fantasy. Over the course of my career, I had treated many patients who had undergone unusual experiences while in coma or during surgery. whenever one of these people narrated an unusual experience like Susana's, I was always completely sympathetic, and I was quite sure that these experiences had indeed happened… in their minds. The brain is the most sophisticated and temperamental organ we posses. Tinker around with it, lessen the amount of oxygen it received by a few torh (a unit of pressure), and the owner of that brain is going to experience an alteration of reality. Or more precisely, their personal experience of reality. throw in all the physical trauma, and all the medications that someone with a brain malady is likely to be on, and you have a virtual guarantee that, should the patient have any memories when they come back around, those memories are going to be pretty unusual. With a brain affected by a deadly bacterial infection and on mind altering medications, anything could happen. Anything, that is, except the ultra-real experience I had in coma.

Literally, the entire book boils down to 'This experience felt real to me, so it must have been real' and it is then presented as real, and in fact, the story itself is presented as "proof" that the experience was real.

I would have been totally fine with it if the book was just his story. If he opened it up and said "hey, here's this amazing thing that happened to me. I can't explain it, but I think it was real and it's worth reading about - it might help you." But to bill this book as "proof", to put the weight of a neuroscientist behind it and then not make a rigorous effort of objectively deconstructing what could have happened to him... sickening.

Probably the worst book I've ever finished.

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nov 2012
Virtually You
The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality
Elias Aboujaoude

Really not to much to say about this book - I don't think it covered anything I wasn't already pretty familiar with. It was really slow moving, and actually sort of boring. The main idea is more or less how the internet can foster a kind of multiple personality disorder among some people, where you have an internet persona that is distinctly different than your actual personality, and how those behaviors can be really bad for you.

I'm not very interested in how people act online - whether they gamble more, are more hostile, or more prone to lie, or whatever. For me, what's interesting about internet behavior was all pretty well covered in "The Shallows", which had to do with how the format of the internet changes our brain chemistry, and changes our offline thought processes as well. Again, this book did touch on that, but it just really didn't feel put together well. Maybe if a good editor chopped of 30% of the cruft I'd have felt a lot better about it, but as it stands it just really isn't up to par with its competition.

Cool cover though.

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oct 2012
The Facebook Effect
The Inside Story of the Company that is Connecting the World
David Kirkpatrick

I 've been wanting to read this ever since watching the incredible facebook movie The Social Network. That script was based of the Book "The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Menrich. I've read Mezrich before and thought he overdid it a bit on the hyperbole, and figured that was the case with his account of Facebook as well. I heard that this book was similar but more accurate, and finally was able to get to it.

I'm not sure how much there is to say. It's a great book that seems to give FB (and Zuckerberg) a pretty fair treatment. There actually isn't much in it about the Winklevoss drama. The most compelling part for me was hearing when Zuckerberg got his first buyout offer for facebook. He had just turned twenty and had launched facebook 4 months before that - and he was offered 20 million dollars for it. Homeboy was a college sophomore. He had literally spent like 2 semesters working on this project, part-time, and got offered 20 million for it. And he passed on that. Incredible.

Anyway, I was impressed by his ability to stay focused on the long term. Not many folks can stare down the barrel of twenty million dollars and say no. Makes me want to pickup some facebook stock.

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oct 2012
The Map That Changed the World
William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
Simon Winchester

Well, this was a dud. The book is about the beginnings of the science of geology. I guess I'm not sure why that sounded interesting. I just looked at the cover and title and assumed there would be more about.. maps. But it's not. Not really. It's more a biography of William Smith, who created a geological map of England in the early 1800's and turned geology into an actual science.

It's super boring.

There was one discussion I really liked, which was about what people used to think fossils were. That was something I had never thought about. I mean, people have been finding little shellfish and whatever-else fossils in stones for thousands of years, but until like 150 years ago we had no idea that they were actual, prehistoric dead animals. I mean, how would a clam get stuck inside a mountain? It's fund to wonder how I would have rationalized that myself.

Well, now I know how they did. Fossils were called "figure stones". People used to collect them. No one thought for a second that they used to be alive. It would have been preposterous to suggest that a little shrimp-ish thing (which didn't resemble any actual animals alive at the time) would be 1,000 miles inland, and buried 500ft inside solid limestone. So, naturally, folks just assumed God put them there to confuse and delight us, and to just generally remind us that he can do whatever he wants. Hilarious.

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sep 2012
On Second Thought
Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits
Wray Herbert

This book was full of interesting discussion - probably my favorite was about studies looking at the effect of the agism stereotype. In one of them older folks were put inside a renovated hotel made to look 30-40 years old (as in, all the newspapers and fashion etc was of that time), and the people were told to imagine themselves to be living in the past (rather then just to reminisce about it) - and those folks got measurably more flexible and healthy in a matter of weeks. We all think old people are falling apart and unhealthy, and our brain actually projects that onto ourselves as we age. Literally, just thinking you're younger can have very positive physical effects!

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aug 2012
The Glorious Cause
The American Revolution, 1763-1789
Robert Middlekauff

In part of my continuing quest to broaden my general knowledge base and learn at least a little history, I figured it would be a good idea to beef up on my American history. After thinking about it a bit, I realized I didn't know anything (and that's pretty much a literal anything) about the revolutionary war. Obviously, I had some really shallow pop-culture knowledge of it, but nothing deep.

Turns out it was pretty damn interesting. Most surprising bits for me were:

The book contextualized the revolutionary period very well. It takes a very ex-ante point of view, and describes well the conflicting sentiments among colonists regarding their relationship with the British crown. It's embarrassingly difficult for me to imagine the 1760's as anything other than a pro-revolution mob and "Americans" fighting tooth and nail to rid themselves of the british tyrants - but really it was a bunch of loyal British colonists who often felt very torn about the issues of the day. The American Revolution was not a foregone conclusion - and I feel like this book does a particularly good job of explaining that.

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jul 2012
Dark Pools
High-Speed Traders, A.I. Bandits, and the Threat to the Global Financial System
Scott Patterson

I fiction-review The Quants (also by Scott Patterson) a few months ago for an MBA class and really enjoyed it again. Pretty much as soon as I finished it up I saw that Patterson had just come out with this book, so I picked it up. This book is about the plumbing of the stock market - the electronic networks that run them behind the scenes - how those networks started, how they matured, and how they've fundamentally changed the nature of stock markets in the last 20 years.

This is the first finance book I've ever read that actually scared me.

I've read a lot of books on finance - some on stock markets, on hedge funds, on corrupt money managers, on insider trading, market manipulation, ponzi schemes… I'd seen it all. This is the first book I've ever read that actually scared me. It makes me think that maybe I should get my money out of the market, and that the whole thing is just a giant crapshoot/arms race that is going to end horribly.

It's really terrifying what's happening. Market technology is moving forward so quickly now, and it's so far ahead of anyone's ability to regulate it. The markets are essentially run by computers, and it's only a matter of time before they all hit a negative feedback loop at the same time and wipe out the whole damn system.

Anyway - the high frequency stuff was really scary, but there was some pretty interesting chapters on machine learning towards the end. There are AI programs now that run hedge funds. Literally. And these things just watch huge streams of data and try to pickup on trends and correlations and then continuously learn from them. The book focuses on a few cases where the bots played the '08 crises and following rebound perfectly. I need to stress - these aren't human managers whose strategies are influenced by what the machines say is going to happen… these are machines running the whole show. They make the trades autonomously, no human involvement whatsoever. A guy in a suit pretty much just shows up at the end of the month to pickup a fat check. Awesome.

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jun 2012
Contested Will
James Shapiro

I've been trying to get into more history books, just so that I'm not such a doofus when someone brings up pretty much anything that happened before I was born. I figure that everyone knows a little something about Shakespeare and sooner or later I'll get into a conversation about it with somebody and it just might pay off to know whether or not he actually wrote all those plays.

It's too bad then that this book is super freaking boring. I don't think it's written particularly badly, but I think the whole idea in general just wasn't nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. I mean, it pretty much goes:

Anyway, that's really about it - at least until the halfway or two-thirds of the book I made it to. There were a whole bunch of forgeries and people that claimed things that didn't happen, and things that you would think would make for an interesting book, but it just fell flat. I kept asking myself why I even cared, and when I realized for the tenth time that I didn't - I put it down.

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jun 2012
The Sweet Life in Paris
David Lebovitz

We're going to Paris in three weeks so I wanted to read something about Paris. This is what I learned:

Seriously though, I'm still really excited to go visit, but all told this seems like the last place I'd pretty much ever want to live.

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may 2012
13 Things That Don't Make Sense
The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time
Michael Brooks

Holy crap this was a fantastic book. It wasn't exactly page turning narrative or anything, in that it doesn't really have a plot. It just goes through 13 things that science still hasn't figured out, things we just don't understand, and explains some history behind the subject and what the current theories are, etc. It's just fascinating to read all the stuff that we don't have figured out. None of it is really a huge surprise, but it's interesting to see it all spelled out in one place. The weird thing is that it's the gigantic stuff we still don't understand - not the details. Huge cosmology/physics issues, and foundational biological ones also. Life, death, sex, free will, etc. Conceptually, it's easy to say that we don't understand those kinds of things, but seeing the gritty details of exactly what and why we don't understand was great.

A standout for me was the discussion of death and senescence - it sounds like we're actually creepily close to figuring out why things grow old and die. Really, when you think about it, there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for it. I wouldn't be able to do it justice, but the book discusses for a long time about life, death and heterosexual sex and how they all may be related as part of the same system. (Again, it just sounds plain as day to suggest that those things are related, but actually trying to understand how and why isn't as straightforward as you'd think.)

Anyway, highly recommended. The book is a super easy read and lots of fun.

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apr 2012
The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Susan Cain

The overarching message in this book is to evaluate and describe introversion. Cain speaks from experience here and reminds the reader many times that she is herself highly introverted. I think the content in the book, and certainly the discussion about the scientific and psychological causes/effects of intro/extraversion are well done, insightful, and something I'm better off knowing. I am myself introverted and can relate very much to a lot of the discussion.

My problem with the book is that Cain treats it as this really forceful defense of introversion. Rather than being only description, the book clearly reaches out to introverts with the message, 'Hey! It's okay! You're not a freak! You're perfectly normal!'. I'm on board with that. Introverts don't need to be ashamed of their personalities or preferences, not by a long shot. And frankly, introverts have long known that they're a helluva lot better at a lot of things than the athletic jocks and gregarious salespeople. Anyway - Cain goes off the rails in this book when she starts preaching about how okay it is to embrace introversion - about how it's high time that the world begins accepting introverts.

Seriously - she goes on at length about how we all need to pay better attention to the introverts, and how we should start asking them for their opinions because they have good ideas, even if they don't volunteer them. She seems to think that her book is going to change the way the world works, and that introverts are a-okay just the way they are. And sorry, but that's wrong. That's the wrong message to send, because it isn't going to work. I think it's great to empower introverts, and for them to know what their strengths are - but the message here should be for them to buck and and deal, because you know what, you're not going to get promoted unless you can smile and glad-hand the president, and you're not going to get a date unless you can carry on a conversation. And yeah, it's going to be harder for you, and you're not going to like it, and that may seem unfair, but you're going to have to deal with it. Because if you don't, you're going to be the smartest guy that never got promoted, and never got into the opportunity to really flourish and accomplish great things.

Who knows, maybe I'm wrong, but I really don't think so.

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apr 2012
Proust and the Squid
Maryanne Wolf

This book is about what happens in our brains as we learn to read. The most interesting part for me was the realization that reading is entirely a human intellectual invention. It's not instinctual, like speech. Humans have had the same brain chemistry for the last forty thousand years. We did not "evolve" our brains into understanding written language. If a child, or community, is raised in isolation - they would figure out how to communicate verbally. Our brains are literally wired for that. Certainly, no one would make up a language like english in a generation - but they'd come up with something. But they would not write it down. That part isn't natural. It's extremely complicated. You might draw a picture of a house, or a cow or something, that makes sense - but it takes a huge leap to go from that to drawing symbols that represent phonemes.

But against all odds - it ended up just clicking for some folks ten thousand years ago, and now we have an alphabet. And every single person that learns it needs to learn it from scratch.

The book covers a ton more than just that. I particularly liked the discussion of how different languages change the way we think, and which languages are most "efficient" and might cause the most positive effects to our thought processes.

But the best part was just that idea that the alphabet is a purely intellectual achievement. Makes me wonder what else is just waiting to be thought of.

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apr 2012
The Night Circus
Erin Morgenstern

I don't read much fiction, but decided I needed a break. Saw this on some editor's choice list on Amazon, liked the cover, and gave it a try.

Uhh, not much to say really. Probably one of the better written books I've read - significantly more well done than something like the Hunger Games (which, don't get me wrong, was entertaining, but not exactly high caliber writing). This book felt really well composed. Good pacing and narrative, fun characters that you cared about, etc. Of course, being a fiction book there really wasn't much to learn - but it was fun, whimsical, and incredibly imaginative. In the least cliche possible way to say this - parts of it made me feel like a child again... so mission accomplished.

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mar 2012
How Creativity Works
Jonah Lehrer

Book of the year, so far. This is about the neuroscience of creativity/innovation/insight. It's even more interesting than I thought it would be, and relatively easy/fun to read as well.

A few take-aways

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mar 2012
The Shallows
What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Nicholas Carr

So the key take-away here is that relatively recently (in the last 40 years or so) - we've discovered that human brains actually change during their lifetime. Turns out this effect is significant, and can happen very quickly, and has very strong influence over the way that we actually think. It's called plasticity.

Essentially - the internet is teaching us to consume information in tiny little chunks, very very quickly. We're beginning to learn and think and remember things in significantly different ways than ever before, which is changing our personalities as well as our achievements. The book talks about how we're doing more and more short form reading and skimming, and how we don't remember things as well anymore because there really is no need to (we can just look it up instantly). The promise of the early internet was that it would allow all people to know so much more - that by the democratization of information we would all be more knowledgable - but the very opposite has happened. By and large, the internet actually allows us to know much, much less than ever before. Instead, we just learn how to look things up…

And the consequences of that are pretty major. Carr talks about a study that looked at all the citations in all academic, peer reviewed journals over the last 50 years or so. Naturally, one would expect that the variance and number of citations would increase in the 90's, when everything was digitized and more easily accessible. But the opposite happened. In the late nineties the citations in peer reviewed journals became significantly more concentrated than ever before. This was because, instead of actually doing research, people just use the same search engines and all get the same results - (which then makes those things rank even higher in subsequent searches).

Anyway - pretty creepy stuff, and that example is just scratching the surface. The internet is significantly changing the way we think and how we do things, probably quicker than ever before. Will be interesting to see how things end up. Great book.

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mar 2012
The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
John J. Ratey

This book probably has the worst cover of any book I've read in years. Not really sure what made me think this would be a good idea… Oh well - the book is great. As you can probably guess, the book is about the effects of exercise on the brain. The conclusions here are pretty dramatic, turns out staying in shape is (surprise!) pretty damn good for you - both in the long and short term. This book was compelling enough that I actually woke up an hour earlier for a whole week just to get some exercise in before the day started. And truth be told, I felt pretty great that whole week.

Then I got lazy.

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feb 2012
Steve Jobs
Walter Isaacson

So like almost everyone else, I was really excited to read this book. Jobs was clearly the best businessman in a generation, as well as one of the most guarded and secretive, so there is remarkably little literature about how he worked, what he was like, etc. When he gave this guy, Isaacson, unrestricted access to himself and his company - you'd think we'd get something pretty incredible.

Well, Isaacson blew it, and now Jobs is dead and the best shot we'll likely ever have at it has been squandered forever.

Less pessimistically, the book was good. Quite good. Fun to read, and very very interesting. There is a ton of detail in there about Jobs that I certainly didn't know, and it certainly helped me get a more rounded idea of what he was like.

I haven't read many biographies. I don't really know what they're supposed to be like. But I'm guessing they're not supposed to be a book report. This book is more or less a chronological account of Job's life - and that's about it. The most interesting parts, by far, are the direct quotes from Jobs. My frustration is that Isaacson doesn't really DO anything. He is a guy that spoke a lot to Steve Jobs - that's it. He doesn't bring anything else to the table. He covers the "What". But what I wanted to get out of this book was the "Why". Why was Jobs able to do what he did? Why was he so visionary? How did he put all this together? Why did he relentlessly chase down simplicity and elegance when it made no business sense to do so? Isaacson doesn't connect any of these dots. I wanted him to elaborate on Job's famous Stanford speech, not just to reprint it.


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dec 2012
The Information
A History, A Theory, A Flood
James Gleick

This book was super interesting. The subtitle lays out the structure of the book pretty well. It starts by explaining the history of how humans transmit information. Obviously, this revolves around the development of language and communication. I particularly liked the explanation of African tribes that can communicate quickly from village to village by beating a drum. They're able to do this because their spoken language is highly tonal. In English, for instance, I can change the meaning of a sentence from a statement into a question by making it a high pitch at the end. But in this particular African language - the meaning of individual words are highly dependent on the contextual tones. Because of that - they're able to imitate language using simplified drum patterns. It's really complex, and super interesting.

The second part of the book is obviously a theory of information - and I found this to be the best part. The book talks about memes - an idea Richard Dawkins came up with in The Selfish Gene. Anyway, memes are ideas - they are information, anything with structure really. The "theory" here is that memes find ways to reproduce, to survive, in the same Darwinistic way that biological agents do. It discusses information almost as a sentient thing, something trying to survive. I really liked the comparison, and it was interesting to think about what properties allow information to be passed on. Why do we know what Mozart's music sounds like, why was that information passed along when most everything else from that time was not?

The last part, the flood, is about the internet, and how that's been an information explosion the likes of which our species has never seen, and some consequences thereof.

Fabulous book - super interesting reading, I really enjoyed it. There are parts that are a bit dry though - but definitely worth getting through.

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nov 2011
Genghis Khan
and the Making of the Modern World
Jack Weatherford

I need to know more about history. Ever since I read that Moonwalking with Einstein book and realized that the more you know the more you remember (and thus the more you're able to learn - i.e., that knowledge is a positive feedback loop), I've been trying to branch out a bit and get some more general knowledge topics under my belt. I know pretty much nothing about Asian history, so what the heck.

Good book. Well written, well researched, and fairly presented. Things I learned:

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oct 2011
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Daniel Kahneman

This is required reading. I feel like no one in the world would be done a disservice by reading this book, and I have a hard time imagining anyone not enjoying it. Scratch that; not being totally enthralled by it.

I've been reading Kahneman since my undergrad days. I had the good fortune to stumble my way into writing a thesis more-or-less on behavioral economics - something I had previously not even known existed. Behavioral econ is like the missing link that actually connects all the charts and graphs that explain how people are supposed to work to the empirical way that we can measure how people actually do work. Kahneman has been on the vanguard of the topic since he pretty much invented it, and this book is a high level summary of his life's work. It is incredible. It's the most interesting parts of econ, phsycology, and neuroscience all mixed up - and the output is a really though full, accessible description of how and why people act the way they do.

I really can't say enough good things about it. It's long, but it's worth it. I don't read many books twice, but I really feel like this is an anchor I'll come back to every few years. This book really could have been titled "All The Things I'm Really Into" - but that probably would have limited marketing opportunities.

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sep 2011
Nothing to Envy
Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick

Wow! I had absolutely no idea what was going on in North Korea. Embarrassingly so. Seriously. My impression was that N. Korea was just more or less down on it's luck, with an eccentric communist leader that didn't let his people watch TV. Uh - wrong. [This is why I need to start reading fewer finance books]. It's pretty much 1938 Germany over there. It's a humanitarian tragedy. It's a mess. I can't believe I was so oblivious to this.

Anyway - this is a really fantastic book that tells the story of what's going on in North Korea, based on interviews from the lucky few that have made it out. It's amazing in that it leaves you not really knowing what to think. What's the way out in a situation like this? The North Korean people absolutely, genuinely, love the Dear Leader - despite his having starved millions of them to death.

It's utterly compelling, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone that wants to be less of an idiot.

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oct 2011
Travels in the New Third World
Michael Lewis

Really, I would say that this book is sort of an addendum to his earlier book, The Big Short, about the US Credit Crisis. Boomerang is about the fallout of the credit crises in Europe. For the most part, it’s remarkable. It honestly reads much more like non-fiction than anything else- both because of Lewis’ approachable style and also because you just really wouldn’t ever think that the world has gotten this messed up. What’s most remarkable is just the extent to which everyone seems to be making things up as they go along. You’d think that heads-of-state would have their stuff together, but they’re all just as corrupt as the last guy.

Anyway, the book was based pretty much a collection of articles that Lewis wrote for Vanity Fair – so at times it does read more like disjoint short stories (one for each country) than as a cohesive book.

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oct 2s011
Factory Girls
From Village to City in a Changing China
Leslie T. Chang

So I wanted to read this book for a couple reasons… First of all, because China is obviously a pretty big deal and it's about time I knew at least something about it. Second, because I've kind of realized lately that I haven't really been branching out much - but just kind of read the same books/authors on finance/credit crises again and again. And then third, because labor issues have recently been a huge deal in the news for Apple, and I wanted to understand more about the Foxconn sweatshop cities that are in the press.

I expected to read about how horrible things are for workers there - but surprisingly that's not what I found. This book definitely highlights the struggles, and absolutely yes, there are some major problems there… But by and large it paints a picture of opportunity. China has hundreds of millions of people living agricultural village life (pretty much everywhere but the east coast) - and frankly those people have pretty horrible standards of living. When each village sends a child or two to the city - the money that they're able to send back home makes huge difference for the family. The book didn't describe sweat shops at all - rather, just millions of people willing to (happy to) work their asses off in the city for 10 years in order to make enough money to go back to their village and live well. Not only that - but Chang described a surprising amount of upward mobility in China - even in factory jobs! - and had inspiring stories of women that rose through the ranks on their ambition and courage.

One phrase Chang kept repeating, which seems to be a mantra for the factory working class, was their willingness to "eat bitterness and endure hardship", at least temporarily.

I thought it was really fascinating and really different than what I thought was going on in China.

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sep 2011
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
Adventures of a Curious Character
Richard P. Feynman

This is a fantastic book to read to try and get an understanding of how fundamentally different people much, much smarter than yourself are. Feynman is brilliant, and it's just fascinating to see how that brilliance (and eccentricity) shows itself through the different parts of his life. Hilariously funny as well, and not technical at all - anyone would be able to enjoy this, (he barely talks at all about physics/math etc), get ready to be depressed at how unambitious and underachieving your life is though.

Some of my favorite parts:

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sep 2011
Four Fish
The Future of the Last Wild Food
Paul Greenberg

I read this book months ago, and didn't take any notes, which is a shame because it had a whole bunch of really interesting information about fish (obviously) and the way that the fishing industry has changed in just the last thirty years or so. It spent a while talking about the dangers of overfishing, and reasons why it's so hard to police the problem (i.e., international waters). Another big point was the discussion of the trade-off of farmed vs wild fish. Farmed can be a great idea since it sort of domesticates fish and allows us to efficiently grow/catch/serve them - but the interesting bit is that those populations very quickly evolve into their own branch of the species, often much less suited for the wild than their actual wild brethren… and when the farmed fish inevitably escape the hatchery they can end up really gumming up the gene pool with the wild fish.

Also, I liked the idea the book brought up that fish are extremely efficient. I don't have the figures, but Greenberg looks at each species and breaks down how many calories we need to feed fish in order to get one calorie of fish meat. With most animals the number is some tiny fraction - but with some fish that number very nearly approaches one.

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sep 2011
Sex at Dawn
The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha

This book was truly bad. Which is such a shame, because from everything on the cover, (not to mention all the glowing praise and fantastic reviews) it really seems like something I would really enjoy. It's a scientific look at human sexuality - how we think it evolved the way it did, the implications of that on our behavior, etc etc. The book is well researched and put together, but the authors just didn't make me care. I don't think I even finished it. I can't really say why not - it's a great book, just boring as hell. I'd like to say I'll give it another try sometime - but honestly I doubt it would go any better. I'd love to see a cliffs notes version I guess - all the points distilled down to a few laminated index cards, because this thing just didn't do it for me.

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aug 2011
The Lonely Polygamist
Brady Udall

Another foray into fiction. I saw this book at Powell's in Portland being advertises as the the next great American novel - and something something not since Huck Finn etc etc good book…

Eh. It's okay I guess. It was fun to read, and the characters were very relatable and well developed, but it's hard for me to get so excited over fiction. I'll say this about it though - I think the older you are, and the more experience you have in life, the more you're going to like this book. And, certainly, if you're heavy into fiction, then I think you're likely to appreciate this one. But if you're like me, only a casual fiction reader not really looking for nuance and subtle character development, there are better ways to spend 20 hours.

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jul 2011
The Clockwork Universe
Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World
Edward Dolnick

Fantastic, really great book about the scientific revolution - and particularly about Isaac Newton. It's gives a lot of great historical context to his life, and then turns into a biography of Newton and goes over all his scientific accomplishments and the impact they had on the world at the time. Really well written, and very accessible. I'm sure the book would appeal more to science nerds than anyone else, but you certainly don't need to be a nerd to enjoy it.

Highlights for me were learning about The Royal Society in England (first science club ever), the true impact and scale of the black death, and learning that Newton and another guy independently both discovered calculus at the same time, but Newton got all the credit.

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jun 2011
The Compass of Pleasure
How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good
David J. Linden

Read this book over the summer and didn't write about it until a few months later, so I've forgotten most of it. It was definitely a great book, about the neurological pathways in your brain and about the biology behind things like addiction and happiness. I definitely would recommend it.

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may 2011
Moonwalking with Einstien
The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Joshua Foer

Ug. Too far behind to write what this book deserves. This is probably my fave book of this year. It's all about how how memory works. In short - humans evolved to have fantastic memory and comprehension regarding spacial relationships. For instance, walk through a building or a strangers home and after one minute you're very familiar with the surroundings. A week later you could probably still describe the area, layout, decoration, etc, fairly well. But lists of information are new to humans, so we're terrible at remembering them…

The book describes a technique called a 'memory palace' - where you literally construct a virtual space inside your head, and then imagine whatever information you want as objects in that space. I tried it, it works.

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apr 2011
Packing For Mars
The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Mary Roach

Eh. This book is about the odd and (conventionally) unexpected things that need to be considered before sending humans into space. It was pretty fascinating at times. For instance, I had no idea just how much skin we slough off every day! In a zero gravity environment where you aren't able to bathe, dead skin just kind of stays on you - she told this one story where I guy was in space for a few weeks, came back to Earth and took a shower, and said that the skin came off his arm and hand like a glove. Gross. Anyway, very interesting book, but the pacing was a bit odd.

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apr 2011
21 Dog Years
Doing Time at Amazon.com
Mike Daisey

I haven't read any books about Amazon ever, but I really wanted to since I work there. I'd love to have some insight into how the company works, what the senior execs are like, what the vibe was during the early days, etc.

This book was none of that. It was pretty terrible. Imagine if Andy Richter got stoned, had zero motivation, ambition, or education, and then got a job at Amazon in customer service - and then wrote a book about how much it sucked there. Yeah, of course it sucked there - when you're a loser deadbeat your job is going to suck. Daisey doesn't really try to hide this - he introduces himself as a loser deadbeat, but still.

To be fair, I think Daisey is just going for humor anyway, and at times the book is indeed pretty funny. But it's distractingly hyperbolic and disparaging. He really pushes the cult-ish feel of the early days, but just makes it sound crazy. It's an interesting look at his life, and how his head works, but it's really not a fair look at Amazon at all. I'm quite surprised, and frankly disappointed that he lasted there as long as he did.

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mar 2011
The Hunger Games (Trilogy)
Suzanne Collins

Honestly, I read these books because I loved the strong branding and iconography that the three different covers (all by Tim O'Brien) established. They were well designed, simple, and consistent. (Unfortunately though, I think they missed on the typeface. They seemed to have been shooting for a Soviet era "big brother" oppressive font, but I think they ended up with a varsity letter jacket instead. A real missed opportunity, but the mockingjay icon still shines alone). I really appreciated that, and decided it was time to get into some non-fiction anyway.

I don't have much to say about the actual story. There were a few things that stuck out for me:

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feb 2011
The Island at the Center of the World
The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America
Russell Shorto

Emily and I were planning a trip to New York, so I decided it would be helpful, or at least interesting, to have some historical context for the place that we were about to visit.

While I'm not really sure how much of it I retained, this book was really interested. I'm somewhat embarrased to say it's some of the only "history" I've read since about, well, high school, and it was much more engaging than I expected.

The main takaway for me was (duh) that NY was colonized by the Dutch looong before the British came to Jamestown. The Dutch had setup quite a robust little trading post. There were loads of fun stories that related directly to modern day events/locations; for instance, Wall St was named so because that road actually used to be the outer wall of the colony.

Anyway, I'm definitely more interested in the history genre now, and without a doubt the knowledge I picked up here defintely enriched the NY trip. Success!

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feb 2011
The Greatest Trade Ever
The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History
Gregory Zuckerman

This might be it for the crisis books. If I don't get tired of them soon I may just run out of books to read... Anyway, this one was great. It was almost entirely like Michael Lewis' The Big Short, but much better. I think I liked it more because it only briefly mentions Michael Burry, the extremely unlikable bi-polar asbergurs guy that also shorted mortgages. Ug, what a pill he was.

Anyway, this book (as you can deduce from the unnecessarily long subtitle) focused mainly on John Paulson, a hedge fund manager that bet the farm on the coming mortgage crisis. I'm not sure if it's all worth repeating here, but the story of how he came up with his trade is pretty compelling and Zuckerman turns it into a great narrative. Much like The Quants, throughout reading this book you can tell that there is something different about Paulson - some insane drive and ambition and intellect that makes it so clear that he pretty much deserves his billions, and everything else coming to him. He seems like a genius, in an effortless sort of way, but still works his ass off. He's the kind of guy I could never relate to... a guy that makes a billion bucks but still comes into work the next day. Inspiring.

Lastly, I'll just say that the book finishes up with a discussion of what he thinks his next trade will be - and he bluntly proclaims that he's all-in gold, that the dollar has been weakened by the fed and he sees a rush to gold in the coming year. I had to laugh, since about a month ago I began shorting it...

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feb 2011
All the Devils Are Here
The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis
Bethany McLean & Joe Nocera

Another financial crisis book... what can I say? This book was a lot like the other ones I've read, nothing groundbreaking, but enjoyable. It was written by journalists, which made it very readable, but they also dumbed it down quite a bit.

Really, I'm not sure this book brought anything new to the table at all. Same discussion about CDS's, CDO's, CDO-squareds, etc. Same discussion about the recklessness of the NRSRO's, the blindness of AIG, the helplessness of the SEC, FDIC, Fed, Treasury, etc. Same discussion about how this was essentially caused by the dems fifteen years ago- pushing hard to get more "average Americans" into owning homes and encouraging the GSE's to buy up shitty loans.

Eh. If I were a high school finance teacher I'd assign this to the kiddos. I'm not sure what else to say. I finished reading it about two weeks before sitting down to write this, and hardly remember anything unique about it. That about speaks for itself.

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jan 2011
The Emperor of All Maladies
A Biography of Cancer
Siddhartha Mukherjee

Despite cancer being the number two cause of death in the USA, and even despite knowing personal friends and family members who have had cancer and died of cancer, I knew amazingly little about cancer before reading this book. I didn't even know what chemotherapy actually was, just that it makes people feel like hell as their hair falls out.

Chemotherapy is just that - chemicals either injected or ingested, meant to kill the cancer. It is literally poison. It kills cancer by killing everything, pretty much. The idea in a nutshell is to get as close as you can to poisoning a person to death, and hope that they survive and that the cancer doesn't. Hell, it was discovered by trail and error! A bunch of leukemia kids with zero hope of survival were just fed dozens of different poisons on a hunch that something interesting might happen to them. Almost everybody died - but over thirty years of mixing and matching the chemicals, we've ended up with a crazy amalgam that stands a chance of stopping cancer.

The book covered quite a bit - and despite trying to have a happy ending, it was pretty depressing. Pretty much, we're all going to get cancer and die from it eventually. Still, it was a great narrative, and a great look at the history of the disease.

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dec 2010
The Predator’s Ball
The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham and the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders
Connie Bruck

I closed out the year reading about the same topic that I started it with, which seemed fitting. Michael Milken, Drexel Burnham, and the rockin' '80s. This book was actually written even before Den of Thieves, so it has very few details on the federal case against Milken. In fact, the book doesn't really cover his illegal activity very much at all... it's not even that condemning of him. It pretty much paints him as a visionary that bent the rules as he trail blazed into a brave new world.

At first I didn't like it. The book doesn't have the narrative that Den of Thieves (DoT) does, so reading it second makes it seem quite boring in comparison. There is no drive, just a timeline of events. But what it lacks in drama it makes up for with detail- the book goes into a lot more detail of the junk bond process, how it started, and how it took off. It gave background that I didn't get from DoT. More than anything else though, I hadn't really realized just how much Milken and DBL changed finance. He pretty much invented the corporate takeover.

Another quick takeaway here was just the power of investing in things that other people aren't into. The book has a long chapter on Carl Icahn and how started off making his fortune trading options. He was really interested in them at a time when no one else really was, right when they were beginning to get traded (before Black-Scholes), and found a way to make a killing.

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Book of the Year
dec 2010
The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos
M. Mitchell Waldrop

If you're like me, this book changes the way you think about science- which, as far as I'm concerned, changes the way you think about everything.

Complexity is about the first ten years of The Santa Fe Institute, a think-tank that studies complexity research. Complexity itself is, unsurprisingly, not something I can sum up in one sentence very easily. It is essentially the study of how systems change when there are many (millions) of agents in the system.

Take water, for example. There's nothing very complicated about a water molecule: it's just one big oxygen atom with two little hydrogen atoms stuck to it like Mickey Mouse ears. Its behavior is governed by well understood equations of atomic physics. But now put a few zillion of those molecules together in the same pot. Suddenly you've got a substance that shimmers and gurgles and sloshes. Those zillions of molecules have collectively acquired a property, liquidity, that none of them possesses alone. In fact, unless you know precisely where and how to look for it, there's nothing in those well understood equations of atomic physics that even hints at such a property. The liquidity is "emergent".

The whole book is how that emergent effect is found in other systems as well, and the implications of what changes and how. It really is a revolutionary way to look at things. The classical Newtonian way that we've been studying science for the last few hundred years has been studying static systems- changing only one variable at a time and seeing what laws we can deduce from that change and what that means in terms of the real world. The complexity idea does the opposite. It starts with the real world, with complex and imperfect systems, and finds what makes them tick.

I don't have a quote for it, but a great example from the book was the idea of technology in economics. In neoclassical econ theory, technology is something that just happens over time that improves productivity. Without electricity one firm can make 200 widgets with their fixed resources, and with electricity they can now make 10,000. The idea of where technology comes from isn't addressed. I never realized how crazy that was. Technology is one of the main drivers of increased efficiency and production, it's extremely important to econ, but econ just sort of assumes that it spontaneously happens over time.

Complexity describes technology in a different way, as an emergent feature of developed economies. It describes how you need a certain base amount of technology 'principal', which then allows further technology to develop. (For instance, think of all the tech that became possible after electricity, or engines, or vaccines were 'discovered'). There is a certain critical amount of technology necessary in a system, and after you pass it that economy can explode into a more productive era. The implications of this on policy are important. Should we send financial aid to countries that have not yet passed this mark? Will that aid actually help the economy?

This was a really remarkable book. It was published in 1992 and I'd love to get an updated version or followup that describes whatever progress SFI has made on these issues since then.

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Book of the Year Comments Looking back, this book fundamentally changed my perspective on complex systems. In the years since reading this book, I've come across the idea of emergent behavior countless times. Particularly in physiological and sociological settings, and in ways very fundamental to how those systems might work. Two favorite examples being that reasoning is an emergent property of a diverse group of people, and that consciousness is an emergent property of billions of neurons. For me, thinking of systems in terms of their emergent properties (or, more accurately, thinking of observable properties as emergent outcomes of a large set of individuals) has been a true paradigm shift. In our world of "big data" I think this is only going to become a increasingly necessary tool for understanding.

dec 2010
The Smartest Guys in the Room
The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron
Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind

The most striking note to me about this biography of the Enron collapse is how so many brilliant people can have such a startlingly short sighted view with their management of the company. At every possible turn, Enron's managers decided to maximize short term accounting profits instead of long term cash flows.

I understand management's need to meet/beat earnings expectations, and to some degree I'm sure earnings management is a consideration at all public companies. But Enron took it to such an extreme that the real story is how they got away internally for so long. And it isn't that they necessarily ever did anything illegal - just the sum of their actions and intentions were so fraudulent that they had to be convicted of something.

“People did not know the difference between mark to market earnings and cash” says a former trader. “No one ever talked to me about cash, says another. It wasn’t on our annual review or included in our targets. It had nothing to do with how we were measured for our bonus. It was nothing we were paid for, so who cares?” He adds, “I knew we had no cash and that our earnings were susceptible to manipulation. This is a game. I know that, everyone knows that. But it was a game we were winning!”

Frankly though, the book was relatively kind to a lot of the management. It didn't judge Skilling (CEO) or Lay (Founder/Chairman) too harshly. In fact, it left open the possibility that they were ignorant to the whole thing. It was clear that they shouldn't have been, but better to be ignorant than willfully fraudulent.

The most inspiring takeaway from the book is that it's such a shining example that everyone can still be wrong. The financial press loved Enron. Hardly anyone had anything negative to say about it. Hell, their bonds were investment grade just days before the bankruptcy. (Not sure if that's a fair measurement though, since bonds downgrades often are what send you straight to BK). Anyway, everyone thought everything was peachy, which I love. Just shows that markets really aren't that efficient, and that great opportunities are there for folks that do their homework.

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nov 2010
Po Bronson

This was essentially Liars Poker: Part Two, but even more condemning. To be fair, this one is entirely a work of fiction, but I get the feeling there is some experience there to back it up. (I'm actually not sure about Bronson's background. My impression is that he was a trader/salesman turned novelist, but maybe not). Anyway, Bombardiers was highly entertaining, hilarious, and just vicious in it's depiction of Wall Street chop shops. I would say it's Liar's Poker meets Glenngary Glenn Ross. If you want to wrap your head around salesmanship, this'll get you there. It's everything everyone hates about car salesman, turned up to 11. Really fun, easy reading. Choice bits:

According to Sid Geeder, who did this better than anyone, success was only a question of how much they could lie before they felt guilty, and then how much guilt they could take before they suffered psychological malfunction.

One rather unrelated bit that struck me was one of the bond saleswoman's marriage plans. She and her partner were getting hung up on a prenup and found marriage law "limiting". So instead, they each formed personal corporations (think Jane Doe, LLC). They transferred all their personal assets to these corps, and then instead of getting married, they just merged corporations.

There was a long list of tax write-offs for acquiring a company but practically none at all for marring a man. And in case anything went wrong with their relationship, it was much easier to break apart two corporations than to go through the messy legal hassles of divorce.

Also, this may be pushing copyright boundaries, but page 284 of the paperback version is the best sales pitch I've ever come across, and it would just be unfair not to include it here. Definitely my favorite passage of the book

Since when is investing in corporate bonds not in your bylaws?" Sidney reasoned. "You just have to get it out of your head that this has anything to do with foreign governments. New Lincoln, Inc. is a United States corporation that will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, file 10Ks with the IRS, and adhere to all regulations governing interstate commerce. It's partly owned by bluechip companies such as Ingenesis, Martin Marietta, and General Electric, which guarantees you I'm not selling you junk. Look, I can understand how you feel: the bonds are unusual, no question. It even took me a few days to get used to them, to see how much sense they made. Twenty years ago, they weren't even selling mortgage-backed securities in the open markets, but it took some visionary people to realize how much more efficient the market would be if we did. Ten years ago, nobody would touch junk bods with a ten-foot pole. But along came the visionaries. You have got to do a little soul-searching here. You have got to ask yourself whether you're a visionary investor, or whether you're just another sheep in the flock. Thats really the question here. There question is not whether these bonds would outperform CMO's in a down-rate environment, or whether Moody's labels these AA or AAA. The question at hand here the question you have to ask yourself is whether you've been studying portfolio investments all your life over there so that you can play it safe. I mean, do you really go to cocktail parties and brag about not having posted a loss in thirty-four consecutive quarters? Or do you brad about buying Microsoft in '84? That's what we've got here. We've got Microsoft in '84, and the ball is in your hands. You can play, or you can take a seat and watch. I'll say it again, you can play, or you can take a nosebleed seat in row ZZ next to a fat lady dumping popcorn down her throat. I said soul-searching, and I meant it. Men have only a few opportunities like this in their life. Men dream about chances like this. I'm talking not just being part of financial history. You've got a chance to be part of world history. I'll lay it out for you. All these foreign governments around the world are suddenly picking up on democracy and turning themselves around. But democracy is an American invention, and we ought to be the ones capitalizing on it. We really should be charging a royalty. We should be licensing democracy. But until someone figures out how to accomplish that, the best thing we can do is turn these countries around ourselves. Why let someone else profit from it? Look, in the eighties, for a while this technique became really popular to buy a shitty company with bonds and turn the company around real quick to pay off the bonds. We kept doing it and we kept doing it until there weren't any shitty companies anymore. And then it occurred to us, 'Hey! Why limit ourselves just to companies?' Why not scoop up shitty countries, fix 'em up, and sell for a big profit? And I'm telling you, there's some real dogs out there that need a face-lift. And you've got to ask yourself whether you've got the balls to play this game. Have you got the gonads to be a part of history? Are you a man who, when the opportunity arises, can let them all hang out? In ancient Greece, they used to have eunuchs guard the women, because the eunuchs were safe. They didn't take risks. When the men went off to war, when the men charged into battle, the eunuchs were at home combing the women's hair and sipping tea. And you've got to ask yourself: you've got to ask yourself whether you're a eunuch, or whether you're a man. There's no middle ground here. Eunuch or man. Man or eunuch. Are you on earth to comb hair and sip tea, or are you on earth to fuck?"

There was a long pause on the line.

"I'm no eunuch," the trust manager responded shyly.

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nov 2010
For Better
The Science of a Good Marriage
Tara Parker-Pope

Just look at the cover. How refreshing is the idea of a book on marriage and relationships based on scientific study, on falsifiable hypotheses, instead of self-help platitudes and moral/religious aphorisms? Parker-Pope is a former health journalist who got divorced after 17 years and decided to turn her focus on marriages to see what she could have done different. The result is a pretty decent introduction to a lot of the (relatively recent) work that's being done studying marriages, sexuality, and happiness.

Some highlights:

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nov 2010
The Thousand
Kevin Guilfoile

I've been in the mood to read stupid fiction for a little while. I used to read Dan Brown's books, and thought they were great. I saw this one billed as "Dan Brown for smart people", so that was enough for me to give it a shot.

It was good. Sure, why not. I don't know, who cares? Six months from now I won't remember a thing from this book. It was fun to read but I finished it feeling the same way I would after a night of drinking alone and watching TV.

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oct 2010
Reminiscences of a Stock Operator
Edwin Lefèvre

I sometimes hear about people having a book that they go back and fiction-review once per year. I've never had that book. I can't actually think of any book that I've read more than twice come to think about it. Anyway, this book probably comes as close to being worth such a status as I've come across. I guess time will tell, but it screams fiction-reviewability.

The book is is the memoir of a somewhat fictional stock trader from the early 1900's. All throughout he imparts knowledge he's picked up from a life of trading. A lot of it is absolutely still relevant today. The psychology of buying and selling- how to hang on to winners and ditch losers, etc. Lefèvre writes many of the things Buffet or Graham would- as far as not being emotional and only trading when you are sure about what you're doing. It's almost all stuff that you've heard before, but it's very well presented, and told in such great context that the lessons really shine through.

Towards the end the book begins to lose that feeling of timelessness though. Lefèvre spends quite a bit of time talking about stock manipulation, where one trader's activity can affect the market. In the '20s this was pretty easy to do. Markets weren't exactly as deep as they are today, and one trader with a decent pocketbook was able to move prices fairly easily. Unfortunately, those opportunities are gone these days- so while this discussion was entertaining, it didn't carry the same weight as other parts of the book.

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sep 2010
The Undercover Economist
Exposing Why the Rich Are Rich, the Poor Are Poor and Why You Can Never Buy a Decent Used Car!
Tim Harford

I'm staring grad school now, so I should say I'll likely be reading a bit less, and probably writing less about the books I read as well. One of my first courses in in microeconomics, and I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to run through a fun refresher on some of the basics before class. That's pretty much what this book is. Tim Harford writes an entertaining and highly accessible book about how markets work, and how the sometimes don't work. It's pretty basic, which was actually kind of frustrating. He talks about inefficiencies in taxes but dances around terminology like "deadweight loss" - and does the same later when discussing externalities. Really, this is a lay-person book. But that's also the strength of the book, in that it boils everything down to very basic lessons. It was an enjoyable refresher, and while I didn't really learn anything new, I guess you could say it reminded me of a few things I had forgotten.Good times, but not as good as Harford's more recent "Logic of Life".

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sep 2010
The Disappearing Spoon
And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
Sam Kean

This might be the first book I've read this year that has nothing to do with any of the others. No behavioral econ, no finance, no psychology... just chemistry and physics. Good times! I saw it billed as an accessible, informative, erudite explanation of interesting stories from the history of chem/physics. Sort of like a Malcolm Gladwell-esque book about the periodic table, but with real science to back up the claims. By and large, the reviews were dead on. The book is chock-a-block full of really, really interesting anecdotes and history from chem and physics, and includes enough actual science-talk to make you feel smart, but not enough to make you feel dumb.

A few of my favorite bits:

Lots more neat stuff. Einstein-Bose condensate, the coldest place in the universe was Boulder, lasers, sono-luminescense, lots of good stuff. Definitely a good one to read again sometime.

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aug 2010
Why We Drive the Way We Do
Tom Vanderbilt

I swear I didn't do it on purpose, but this is pretty much a behavioral finance book where the dollar signs are replaced by cars.

The main takeaway from the whole book is that human beings are tremendously poor judges of risk. We don't think anything we do while driving is dangerous, because we've never been in a fatal car accident. So we listen to the radio, we speed, we yawn, we make phone calls, etc.. and every time we get home safe that behavior is reinforced. Worse yet, even if we very narrowly avoid an accident due to reckless/negligent driving, we still pat ourselves on the back. "Wow, I can't believe I swerved out of the way while going so fast, I must be a great driver!"

Another interesting thing: The safer cars get, the more reckless we drive. Forty years ago cars were moving coffins- they were big and steel and sharp and had no airbags or seat belts or crumple-zones or antilock brakes etc etc. Today we have comparatively super safe cars, but the same fatality rates... We keep pushing car companies to develop more safety features, and every time we get them, we collectively drive like bigger boneheads. Driving is a system of fat tails, but we pretend it's not. A fatal accident is a black swan... it's something our personal risk models don't account for. We all realize, on some level, that driving is dangerous. But we don't just how dangerous our behaviors are until the actual event happens, when it is obviously too late to adjust. We're left with a whole population of drivers that don't understand how risky their driving is.... everyone that does understand is dead.

There's also discussion of traffic congestion, which works in a similar way. If there's too much traffic in an area, the natural impulse is to build more roads. But then congestion falls, attracting more cars, and before you know it (and in some cases instantaneously) the bigger and newer roads are just as crowded. The actual answer, paradoxically, is to destroy roads.

These findings really aren't surprising if you think about it. People respond to incentives. The underlying message throughout the book is: Driving produces externalities. We cannot allow traffic decisions to be made on the margin by individuals, or we will always encounter a tragedy of the commons. The externalities must be internalized - gas tax, congestion tax, tolls, etc.

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jul 2010
Banker To The Poor
Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty
Muhammad Yunus

For quite some time I've heard positive things about the work of Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen bank. His program was the birth of micro credit- something I never heard about while in school but once I left I started seeing all kinds of stories about the difference it was making in poor communities. I definitely understand the power of credit and leverage, but I wasn't convinced that giving unsophisticated poor people small loans was going to make a long term positive change. I wanted to understand the economics behind the Grameen bank.

In that regard, this book fails miserably. It seems written for the very people meant to receive the loans, not for anyone seeking a rigorous understanding of low income economics. Yunis is an econ professor, so I'm very disappointed by his approach here. The book is almost entirely anecdotal. It never discusses actual theory, it just shows example after cherry-picked example of how his system is great and can work all over the world. It was a huge bore actually, and left me with far more questions than I went in with.

Yunus' bank seems to be more of a ponzi scheme than anything else. He clearly demonstrates how extremely poor people benefit from initial loans. He highlights many cases where people just need ten dollars or so to 'own their own capital and means of production', which creates far higher profits for them than before. That would make sense, if he stopped there. But Yunus thinks that as soon as they pay off a loan they should immediately apply for another, larger one. This doesn't make sense to me. His ideal world is everyone owing him more and more money as they become more and more productive- but they're never free of his debt.

I'm not saying Yunis is wrong, or that micro credit isn't helpful. This book just didn't make the case for any of it.

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jun 2010
The Logic of Life
The Rational Economics of an Irrational World
Tim Harford

Despite the title, I expected this to be a typical behavioral econ book about all the different ways that people are silly and irrational. I've read plenty of books like that before, and don't really tire of them. I was ready for more examples of framing biases, endowment effects, etc. The premise of this book is actually the opposite. Essentially, Harford argues that in almost all cases (at least, in cases where people are performing familiar tasks - that is, not wacky one off lab experiments) people are strictly rational. The book makes a great case. It is very approachable. It reads like a Malcolm Gladwell book but you can tell it's written by an actual economist. It's much more rigorous than Gladwell.

Anyway, the main concept that I think is worth preserving here is that Harford argues how very, very small preferences- or very small imbalances in initial endowments- can have devastating social consequences at scale. He spends a lot of time describing what he calls "rational racism"- where it actually makes sense rationally for a business owner to not hire minorities, on account that he expects them to be less educated. Disturbingly, it is then rational for minorities not to invest in education, on account that they aren't going to get hired anyway. Make no mistake, Harford finds racism deplorable, but if we can ever get rid of it, he argues that we need to understand that what is causing it isn't just ignorance and hate, but rather very rational people making logical choices.

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jun 2010
On The Brink
Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System
Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

It really goes without saying that I had to read this book. Paulson, perhaps more than anyone else on the planet, knows what went down in Sept 2008. (It's probably one huge, hazy blur to him- but still). Too Big To Fail, the Sorkin book, bothered me in that it took a lot of liberties with disclosing what really happened vs what the author thought would sound good in a book. Sorkin wrote specific dialog that took place in ultra high level meetings- meetings where the people their don't talk- so I imagine a lot of it was made up. Paulson's word first hand.

I started reading this in February, and didn't finish until June. That's how boring the first half of the book is. It took me five months to get through the first 100 pages. They're not about anything. Part autobiography, and part preemptive defense. It was garbage.

About when the timeline hits late summer 2008 things start kicking into gear. It was interesting to read Paulson's opinion of the events, though honestly, there wasn't anything in there that truly benefitted from his first hand perspective. It seemed sort of evident to me that he was constructing the book based on loose memories and looking through the meetings he had scheduled in his calendar. Still, he does offer more color on TARPs creation and passage than any other book I've read, and I thought the inside-baseball on the bill was probably the highlight of the book.

As expected, Paulson spends quite a bit of time defending his actions. He also adds a bunch of unnecessary bits here and there about how George Bush handled the whole thing brilliantly as well. Not brilliantly I guess, but he praises W. left and right for never letting politics get in the way of his decisions, etc etc. Not relevant material.

Paulson wraps things up with suggestions for how to change the system for the better, so that this never happens again. Most of his tips are remarkably un-republican. He advocates strong regulation going forward, and says incentives need to change on Wall Street. Eh. Given that he had a couple years as Secretary before everything blew up, not to mention his career as Goldman CEO, I feel like if he truly thought the system needed changing he would have acted on it before the crisis. Overall, this was not the best book I've read on 2008, but not a waste of time either. I'd call it a push.

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may 2010
The Quants
How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed It
Scott Patterson

This is essentially a book that tracks the careers of five or six different kids that went on to become Wall Street giants by inventing financial engineering. Essentially, these are the guys that had just the right mix of talents and interests at just the right point in history (tech revolution) to become mega millionaires.

Straight away, I was surprised by the mention of Ed Thorp. He's the guy that wrote Beat The Dealer, the godfather of card counting and a central figure in Bringing Down The House, which I read a few months ago. Turns out Thorp followed that up by writing Beat The Markets and also became the godfather of quants! I had thought that reading about card counting was just a fun diversion - but turns out pretty much every quant on Wall Street got started counting cards and reading Thorp's books.

Anyway- not too much to say about this one except it really showed me that these guys are in a totally different class than me. When Peter Griffen was 19 he was a freshman at Harvard. By that age he had already read Thorp's book, and convinced people to give him 200K to invest in warrant-convertible bond arbitrage strategies. He put a satellite dish on the top of his dorm to be able to run a real-time trading office from his freaking dorm room. He flew himself to New York on weekends to meet up with the Wall Street traders he "met" making trades over the phone. My freshman year I was still intimidated by girls. I mean, holy hell.

So yeah, the book describes about five other people pretty much just like that, who are both gifted and motivated and ambitious beyond any reasonable standard, and their not-improbable rise to success. It also mentions how their automated and high frequency trading schemes almost broke Wall Street during the previous crises, but that wasn't really the focus.

All in all, a great book to motivate an aspiring 12 year old, or depress an aspiring 26 year old.

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may 2010
No One Would Listen
A True Financial Thriller
Harry Markopolos

The Harry Madoff story is actually very interesting. I didn't know much about it because frankly, when the news first broke, the press didn't really make me care. They all focused on lame human-interest drama. The so-and-so-lost-their-whole-life-savings-boo-hoo angle. I just thought "diversify" and changed the channel. However, the story is really fascinating. Madoff ran a 60+ billion dollar hedge fund for 20+ years without ever making any investments, and without being caught! He never even was caught, and likely would not have been. The 2008 crises caused a flight to safety, and his non-fund obviously couldn't handle the redemptions, so he imploded. But still, the idea that such a big scheme existed is crazy- and there must be an amazing story behind it to read.

This book is not that story. This is one of the worst books I've ever read. I only made it to the end out of morbid curiosity.

This book is nothing more than a victory lap for Harry Markopolos, the absurdly annoying, egomaniacal douchebag who wants credit for bagging Madoff. Markopolos is a terrible writer. Really, really bad. I really can't believe the garbage that made it past the editors here. I love complaining, and I could go all day long on this guy. But I won't. I'll just leave it at this: Markopolos is not a writer or a journalist. He did some equations that led him to believe Madoff was a fraud, and then obsessed over them for ten years. Then he wrote a book about those ten years. He did no additional research for the book. There is nothing in the book about Madoff's actual operation. Just the facts that Markopolos thought were true, repeated over and over again and again and again- followed by much whining about how he was right the whole time and no one would listen and how he deserves everyone's apologies and recognition.

It is terrible. It is just awful. But the good news is that it made me curious about what actually was going on inside Madoff's "lipstick" building for all that time, and hopefully I can track down a legitimate book by an actual journalist that's interested in more than getting a shiny gold star.

One last thought: It's interesting that none of the big five investment banks had any exposure to Madoff. Markopolos makes it pretty clear that in speaking to people at those banks, and at many other sophisticated hedge funds, that pretty much everyone on Wall Street knew. Yet the SEC received "only" a half dozen or so tips about Madoff in the last ten years or so- five of them from Markopolos. Makes you wonder about where the incentives are for these folks. I mean, Madoff was competition, so I imagine anyone running a fund would want him out of business, since it was impossible to compete with him. But at the same time, if you knew he was a fraud, then doesn't it help you to have all your competitors money go down the crapper once it blows up? Interesting trade off, but it looks like the clear choice was that everyone in the know kept their mouths shut.

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may 2010
The End of Wall Street
Roger Lowenstein

The one sentence review of this book is "the longest newspaper article I've ever read." It is concise, clear, and presents the facts in comprehensive but still approachable way. What it isn't, is a good book.

It has no narrative, no drive. It moves through the financial crisis chronologically, and honestly it just feels like someone picked out highlights from the WSJ over those two years. I'm not sure why the book is even broken into chapters, since each one is exactly like the last. Too Big To Fail covered this same content, but as a narrative. The characters had depth and motivations. A good example is when Joe Gregory at Lehman stepped down with Callan, the young CFO. TBTF had spent a long time talking about Gregory's relationship with Fuld, how he had appointed Callan and supported her, the mistakes that both of them made, etc, such that when they stepped down I actually cared, and I knew how big a hit it was to Fuld and how it changed the culture of the firm. In this book, the same scene is one sentence long. It goes something like "that week Joe Gregory, a Lehman exective, and the CFO Erin Callan abruptly resigned." Weak. And I'm not picking and choosing... TBTF covered pretty much every topic in more detail and in a more engaging way.

During the second half of the book, things pick up a little bit and become more engaging. This is during the actual Sep-Oct 08 timeframe, during those few weeks where the whole system was just falling apart. Still though, as a whole, this book seems like cliffs notes for TBTF. It covers all the content, but leaves out the good parts that really make it worth reading. I'm very surprised it's by Lowenstein, the same author of When Genius Failed, which was an extremely engaging account of the LTCM disaster.

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may 2010
The Big Short
Inside the Doomsday Machine
Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis' contribution to the 'books about the financial crisis' library is unique in that he chose to tell the story of the very few folks that saw the meltdown coming, bet the farm, and came out on top. The book follows a couple different groups of folks who all did the right research, had the proper skepticism, and came out ahead.

Most interesting to me was the story behind the folks at Cornwall Capital- a capital management firm started by two dudes in their early thirties who didn't want to work for anyone else. They had $130,000 in a Schwab account - and limited Wall St experience - and decided they could make a living off of making good investments. They were value investors, but their real talent was finding "event" based stocks (M&A targets, bankruptcies, litigation, etc)- and buying options on them which they believed were mispriced. Basically, they figured that the Black Scholes pricing model assumed a bell curve model of future price probabilities (ie, a stock is more likely to go up/down by a little than by a lot). In may event-situations, that is not true. The stock will either go up a lot, or down a lot after the event - but not a little. Anyway - these two guys turned their own $130k into a couple million with these good bets, then saw the impending crisis and bought mezzanine level subprime CDO default swaps, and made $80 million. Nice.

Anyway, through these different stories, Lewis exposes how rigged/idiotic the entire financial industry was, at least from the point of view of these guys, who of course turned out to be right. I liked especially the treatment he gave to the ratings agencies - who he correctly depicts as broken, ignorant institutions that played a massive part in this whole disaster, but that the mainstream press hasn't really paid any attention to. Frankly, I think the NRSROs are the single most important thing that need to get fixed in the aftermath of this crisis, but so far that hasn't been a talking point at all in Washington. Oh well, maybe next time!

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april 2010
Born To Run
A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougall

Last November I ran the Seattle half-marathon. In my "training", I think the longest I ever ran was about 8 miles, which seemed at the time to be pretty close to 13 and so a pretty good place to stop. I was blown away by how sore I was after running the 13. I mean bad. I could barely walk that night and the next day. I really like running - I think it's peaceful and it feels really natural. Not to say it feels good or comes easy, I think what I mean is that I enjoy how basic a human function it is. It is the most quintessential exercise. No frills, no shortcuts.

Anyway, the day after the half-marathon, I decided running just isn't for me. I'm a 200 pound guy, and I feel like if I spend the next few years running then I'd pay for it for the rest of my life. Blown out knees, constant joint pain, etc. It just didn't seem worth it.

However, I was bothered and disappointed by that conclusion. If I enjoyed running because it was a core human experience, then how could it actually be bad for me? That question is exactly the premise of this book. McDougall investigates the circumstances around the world's best runners to find out what makes them tick, and why their bodies haven't yet turned to ash. It's a fantastic book that manages to do three things:

First, it exposes a sport a had no idea even existed, Ultrarunning. Apparently, there are people that run 300 mile continuous races. Or 150 mile ones in 125 degree heat. I really cannot comprehend this. There are people that have run one marathon per week, minimum, for several years. Second, McDougall argues that running shoes are garbage, and makes a great case for it. Apparently, humans were born to run... barefoot. When using running shoes, your stride is modified because you can land on your heel. Running barefoot would never allow this because it hurts way too much. When barefoot, you land on the midsole. This shortens your stride and makes you slower- but doesn't destroy your body and gives you endurance. And lastly, the book also has a compelling narrative story about an unlikely race in the-middle-of-nowhere Mexico where the greatest runners in the world faced each other.

Anyway, fantastic book. If I do start running again, which now I hope I do, I'll need to give barefoot a try.

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april 2010
When Genius Failed
The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management
Roger Lowenstein

I ended up coming across this book because given all the other finance books I'd been reading lately, Amazon's computers thought I would be into this one also. For whatever reason, I figured this book was about the 2008 crises and went ahead and got it. I was way off- it was about the last crises that happened, when Long Term Capital Management failed.

In all the reading I've done during and since the 2008 crisis, I've heard the "LTCM bailout" mentioned a lot, but didn't really know anything about it. Turns out it was a hedge fund created by some of the smartest guys in the industry (led my John Merriweather, former Soloman banker, a big fan of Liar's Poker). Merriweather was joined by Merton and Scholes, the guys who pretty much invented options pricing, and later won the Nobel prize for their work. I remember learning their models in college investment courses, it was a bit surreal to see how they actually applied it themselves.

Anyway, I was a huge fan of the book. LTCM was all about math- they were the original quants. Their strategy was just to nail the equations and manage risk with calculated certainty. LTCM made around 40% returns per year for the first three or four years it existed. It was a huge success. Unfortunately, their models gave them extremely tiny profits, so in order to really make so much money they needed to be highly leveraged. Of course, then Russia defaulted on it's loans, put a wrinkle in global finance, and everything went to hell. Bam. Bankrupt. It's hard to believe that guys this smart still get rich and greedy, and then get stupid.

Well written, and an incredible story. Like Liar's Poker, I can't believe I had made it so far in my life without reading this. Lowenstein has a book about to come out on the 2008 crisis, so now I'm really looking forward to that.

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march 2010
The Ascent of Money
A Financial History of the World
Niall Ferguson

I really don't know what I was expecting out of this book. I think Amazon recommended it to me, and it just seemed like a no-brainer. You know how the very first chapter of any intro econ or finance book (or whatever) is always the easiest assignment of the year, because those few pages are always just some interesting back story and not real meaty? That's pretty much what I figured this book would be. For a while, I was right. But pretty soon it really opened up and became a lot more comprehensive than I expected.

This was much more a history book than a finance one. (The author is a historical writer, not a finance guru). It explains, in surprising detail, the emergence of: cash, bonds, stocks, insurance, and then finance bubbles and housing markets in general. The book was written right before the 2008 disaster really hit the fan (post Bear, pre Lehman), so it offered an interesting perspective that's hard to come across, someone writing about the 2008 "credit crunch" without making reference to the armageddon of that September.

I'm getting off topic, and don't really know how much I even have to say- but the book was great and better than I really expected. There are some really slow parts (ug, is insurance ever exciting?) but for the most part Ferguson focuses on a narrative that kept me engaged and interested, and overall it served as a great general history of finance. There was very little in this book that I already knew going into it, so... great ROI?

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february 2010
Liar’s Poker
Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street
Michael Lewis

This book is full of some really fantastic quotes. It's a hilarious look into a bond salesman's world in the late 80's, and also provides great insight on how mismanaged Salomon Brothers was at that time. More than anything the book just describes the firm's downfall from this rookie salesman's perspective, and it's tough to watch.. but also, like I said, hilarious.

I could probably write on for a ways about the book, but I'll just put in my favorite quote from it and let that speak for itself.

"Uuuuuhhhhhhhhh," he continued, in a slightly different key. He began to hyperventilate into the phone.

And you want to know how I felt? I should have felt guilty, of course, but guilt was not the first identifiable sensation to emerge from my exploding brain. Relief was. I had told him the news. He was shouting and moaning. And that was it. That was all he could do. Shout and moan. That was the beauty of being a middleman, which I did not appreciate until that moment. The customer suffered. I didn't. He wasn't going to kill me. He wasn't even going to sue me. I wasn't going to lose my job. On the contrary, I was a minor hero at Salomon for dumping a sixty-thousand-dollar loss in someone else's pocket.

Lastly, I'll just say that Michael Lewis has another book coming out very soon called The Big Short, (which I'm very much looking forward to- it's about the recent calamity), and I'm not sure if it's because of the press for that book or what but all of a sudden Lewis is everywhere. And I don't mean on TV- in the few weeks since I've finished this book I've come across references to it all over the place (eg, "big swinging dicks" in Boiler Room). Anyway, I've just realized that it's an extremely influential book- so I'm disappointed it took me this long to figure that out and read it.

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february 2010
The Art of Racing in the Rain
Garth Stein

I judge books by their covers. Everyone does, but I think I do it more than others. What can I say, I love graphic design, so it seems natural. I also love dogs. And racing. And especially the rain. So I bought this book immediately without any idea what it was about.

Halfway through, I thought I had made a mistake. It's literally told in the first person by a dog, who is as smart as a human, but I guess not smart enough to find a way to let on about it. He's a sweetie though, and does a convincing job of being a stereotypical loyal and slightly goofy mans-best-friend. After a lengthy exposition, the conflict finally takes center stage and drives the story well. It turned out quite delightful, by the end I was pleasantly surprised by what I could learn from racing in the rain.

There was one line in particular that went something like "to remember is to disengage from the present." It was in the context of the main character's memories (/lack thereof) of races he'd won. I thought it was a clever and well executed presentation of the idea that life should be lived in the moment. Anyway, not bad for a gamble on nice cover.

Oh yeah, one last thing. I also enjoyed that the book took place in Seattle. I'm not used to seeing places that I'm familiar with in books or movies. I guess people that grow up in New York or Vegas or San Francisco must be numb to it, but I always get a thrill out of seeing the space needle on film or in this case, reading about a dog that lives on Capitol Hill and plays fetch at Volunteer Park.

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january 2010
Bringing Down The House
Ben Mezrich

It's hard to resist a book about MIT geniuses turned card counting experts and make millions in Vegas. This book is a fun little diddy about the MIT team's exploits and success, and ultimate demise. The book itself isn't really that well written, but it was certainly good enough to keep the story moving, which is all I really wanted. In a way, this book was actually very similar to Den of Thieves. Smart people gaming the system for quick cash. Card counting isn't illegal... but close enough to it that you never want to get caught- as the book makes pretty clear.

If anything, the book was a bit depressing to read knowing full well that I'm not as smart as these guys. I really hate it anytime I read about someone younger than me making a boatload of money... even these guy's day jobs were making them rich, outside of the tens of thousands they made each weekend in Vegas.

Oh well. Fun spacer book to read in between the heavier finance ones I've been doing.

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january 2010
Too Big to Fail

Andrew Ross Sorkin

I don't really know how to characterize this book. It's somewhat like Den of Thieves, in that it sort of dramatizes actual events. Sorkin is an (alarmingly young) financial columnist for the New York Times, and writes the inside story of the financial crash of 2008. The book covers the Bear Sterns sale to JPMorgan, Lehman's filing, AIG's various issues, TARP, and the Wachovia sale to Wells Fargo. More importantly, the book covers all the deals in between that no one ever heard of... everything that almost happened but fell through at the eleventh hour. The book ends right after TARP was implemented, when Treasury directly injected cash into all the major banks, becoming socialism-esque investors in each of them.

For the most part, it's an extremely engaging book. It was really interesting to see behind the scenes at the big Wall Street firms. Mainly, it was just a great refresher on everything that went down in 2008. The book makes pretty much no effort to analyze how or why the crisis happened, and only in the epilogue it opines on any lessens we might or should learn from the whole ordeal.

I'm left uneasy about the whole thing though.. because I still don't know what, besides the basic timeline and factual events, was fact vs fiction. I don't know if Sorkin is a great investigator with deep, well connected sources... or if he just completely fictionalized the entire thing. If this book is all true, it's an amazing accomplishment. If not, which is certainly what I suspect, then the book should be very clear about it.

Hank Paulson has a memoir coming out next month that will actually have an insider's perspective. I'm anxious to see how much of it will be in line with this book.

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january 2010
Den of Theives
James B. Stewart

A great read covering several insider trading scandals in the mid 80's, during the height of the corporate takeover boom on Wall Street. It gives a lot of interesting color about the backgrounds of key finance power players at the time. Specifically, it covers pretty much the entire lifetimes of Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken.

Boesky was an uneducated nobody that somehow convinced people to let him manage their money, and parlayed that into becoming the foremost arbitrageur on Wall street. Of course, almost all of his great investment calls were simply inside info he got from his circle of informants. Boesky was definitely intelligent, insofar as he had the street smarts and tenacity to bully his way to the top. I mean, what's more impressive, a brilliant arbitrageur- or someone that almost gets away convincing the world they are a brilliant arbitrageur?

Milken on the other hand, seems like a legitimate genius. A powerful combination of book smarts, street smarts, the ability to stay focused, and the complete disregard for anything in his life other than work. The book starts out talking about how Milken worked 10 hour workdays, and that number seems to increase every chapter. By the time he's making $500M per year, he's up to frequent 20 and 22 hour workdays. The typical labor supply curve is always backwards bending, where there is some point at which a person decides they're making enough money and would prefer to spend less time working and more time at leisure. Milken does not fit this mold. He pioneered the junk bond market, and became such a big player that he pretty much controlled the entire market. His decisions and tactics would define the market, which gave him interesting opportunities.

If anything, I wish the book were a bit more technical. It's written very well, but definitely targeted for a mass market, and doesn't try to go over the reader's head. Michael Crichton fans would be very comfortable here- except that this book isn't fiction. I wish it spent more time on technical details- I think more details about Milken's trades and strategies would be interesting- though I'm sure I'll be able to find that elsewhere.

A few other issues as well. First of all, the second half of the book is really slow. All of a sudden you realize you're reading about actual events instead of a fiction Wall Street thriller. I guess that's to be expected, but it's a shame and an effort to sludge through it. At 500+ pages, when the 'second half' is slow, that's saying something. Of course- maybe that's just because I'm far more interested in stocks and bonds than I am in subpoenas and grand juries. The first half is all self made millionaires doing huge deals, the second half is lawyers and lawyers and lawyers.

One more complaint: I'm not sure if it's correct or incorrect, but Stewart's use of commas drove me absolutely crazy. He inserts them inside the names of law firms and investment banks- all of which are named after the six or so founding partners. The entire book he's writing about Goldman, Sachs and Wachtell, Lipton and Drexel, Burnham, Lambert, and almost never (with the exception of Drexel) shortens the names to just the first. It makes many sentences very confusing.. and seriously, can he not just say "Goldman"? It's just very odd to see those firms written out with commas.

Last (and least) of all, I was bummed to finish the book and realize that it was written in 1992. The events in the book wrap up in 1991 or so, so the conclusion doesn't have any of today's perspective- or the fun of a "where are they now" conclusion. I guess that's what wikipedia is for.

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november 2009
The Crash of 2008
And What It Means: The New Paradigm for Financial Markets
George Soros
The Crash of 2008

Blech. This book is.. not what I expected. To be fair, I didn't do much research before buying it. I didn't know much about Soros, except he was a billionaire arbitrageur. I figured it would be good to get his take on the recent bubble/crash. After having gone through Bailout Nation's more top-level account, I was hoping this book would cover the crash in more detail. I've made it through the first third of the book and given up. It has not yet mentioned anything at all about the 2008 crash. In fact, in the first third of the book it doesn't mention anything about financial markets - or anything even remotely related to finance. The book instead is Soros' take at a philosophy text. He just goes on and on about Karl Popper, reflexivism, and falsification. I'm sure a lot of what he has to say is worth hearing. In fact, his comments on reflexivism were very interesting. But I don't have the patience for it right now. I wanted to hear about subprime loans and credit default swaps - I felt cheated by the title and never really got past that.

Someday I'll be in a philosophy mood, and maybe then I'll come back to this.

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october 2009
How We Decide
Jonah Lehrer
How We Decide

This book is about how humans make decisions, and more importantly, how we can make better ones. I had expected the book to be pretty light-lifting, but it was much more technical than I anticipated. The book covers a lot of high level neuroscience, describing the parts of our brains that are used for several different kinds of thought. Primarily, the author calls out rational logic and emotional reactions as the two primary ways we make decision.

Rational thought is controlled by the prefrontal cortex, the frontal lobe of the brain that is far more developed in humans than any other species. This is where we make calculations and do cost benefit analysis, and solve problems and even invent creative solutions. I don't need to describe the benefits of this. But it's also where we deliberate and over analyze. Furthermore, it has a surprisingly limited number of data points that it can consider at once, which can trick you into thinking you're considering everything, when really you aren't.

The emotional centers of the brain do the opposite. They're equipped with chemical reward centers that have been trained over your lifetime to instantly analyze the situation based on your past experience, long before your rational mind can do the calculations.

The book explains the balance between rational thought and emotional "autopilot" thought- and most importantly urges the reader to recognize what situations are most appropriate for each process. The purpose of the book is to enable the reader to make better decisions. By realizing the type of situation you are in and then from there engaging the most appropriate decision making neurological process.

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