I'm not writing it down to remember it later.
I'm writing it down to remember it now.
I've 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:
- Google had a very bespoke IPO - I didn't even know you could really do that. Their S-1 was hilarious, where they made all kinds of unusual statements (like the famous 'don't be evil' motto - that's an odd thing to tell your investors) and especially a sentence declaring that they may do some things that lose money, only because they believe that doing them will make the world a better place. They also ran the IPO as a dutch auction, a process they felt would be the most fair to retail investors. They outright declared that they will always only disclose the minimum information required by law to their investors... ! Hilarious right? Maybe best of all, they setup the company with two classes of shares. Class A is common equity where 1 share = 1 vote. Class B shares have 10x voting power, and are convertible to Class A at any time. Larry and Sergey loaded themselves up on Class B, giving them perpetual control of the company - years later Zuckerberg did the same thing.
- Larry and Sergey are BIG into brain science. I had no idea. Their vision of Google is implanting a chip in your brain, so that you'll just 'know' things. I'm 100% on-board with this; but Google is probably the creepiest, worst company I'd want actually doing it. Still - this is a long, long way off, but I'm happy that there is serious private research being done on it - very interesting.
- Larry and Sergey were both brought up in Montessori schools. I had no idea what those were, but apparently they're an institution that emphasizes learning through experimentation and individual effort, never by rote. I'm totally down with this, and was glad to learn about it. On the one hand it would produce people like these guys, who are insatiably curious and never even consider backing off of an exciting idea just because it's unconventional or because it's off the beaten path. We need people like that. But on the flip side, I could see the same kind of upbringing lead to creating someone like Kanye West - an outrageously egomaniacal, self-entitled asshole who does whatever the hell they want, with total disregard for authority, order, and conventional manners. I guess it's a pretty thin line between the two.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- First, Hawkins really digs into the "Chinese Room" metaphor/thought experiment. This, roughly, tries to figure out if machine translation is intelligent. If you had a Chinese guy in one room, and an English-only speaker in the other, and the Chinese guy communicated with the English guy only by passing him (through a slot in the wall) papers with Chinese writings on them - and the English guy had no idea what they meant, but was able to look them up in a huge manual that told him exactly what to write back on new sheets of paper, such that when the Chinese guy read the Chinese writing that the English guy and his manuals had created the Chinese guy was sufficiently convinced that the person on the other side spoke Chinese - would you then consider the English guy to "understand" Chinese? If not the guy, did the manuals understand Chinese? Did the whole system (the man and the room, etc)? During which part of the process was their intelligence? What is the nature of intelligence? Et cetera. These were interesting things to think about - which I'm actually not done thinking about.
- Back in Moonwalking With Einstein Joshua Foer wrote that how much you remember of a new experience is a function of how much you already know. This is because you remember things in context, so you need to have a contextual framework to stick things onto in your head. This made perfect intuitive sense to me when I read it, but it also was something I had never thought of or realized and I thought it was profoundly important, and it very much changed my reading habits and motivated me to start researching a much broader scope of general knowledge, so as to increase my general retention of information throughout life. Hawkins argues the exact opposite. Hawkins builds out a framework for the brain wherein only novel events actually make it all the way through a complex hierarchy and into your hippocampus to be stored as long term memory. In fact, he argues (anecdotally, and seemingly in jest, but not entirely) that part of the reason you remember less as you age is because so many fewer things are novel. Your brain already knows most of what you experience, so it doesn't make it up the pyramid to the hippocampus. I have no idea if there is merit to this, but it was interesting to see two theories about that same thing that are so diametrically opposed, yet both make such good intuitive sense. I'm certainly rooting for Foer.
- Hawkins brings up synesthesia, an incredible sounding brain disorder where your senses overlap. Folks with this condition may think that a certain taste is red, or that a certain word is rough and brittle. They just cross their senses in ways that don't make any sense at all to normal people, but make perfect sense to them. I've read about this before in other books but was happy to see it pop up again here and wanted to record it. I'm sure this can be a difficult and possibly debilitating disorder to live with, but some part of me is happy it exists. I like the idea that there are people out there who experience classical music as green, and think that rock music tastes like mustard. I can't explain why, but I with all due respect I feel like overall we're better for it, to have those folks around.
- Hawkins proposes that the core nature of intelligence is the ability to predict the future. He proposes this like it's his own theorem, like he owns the rights to this idea. Towards the beginning of the book, he asks the reader what they think the nature of intelligence is - and without skipping a beat I thought to myself "ability to predict the future". Now look, I'm fairly certain that that is something I've come across in other neuroscience books before, I'm not trying to take credit - but I haven't read any of his books before. I just thought it was a jackass thing to try and claim that idea for himself.
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.
Decided to re-read 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.
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:
- Apparently, suicide is more correlated with perfectionism than hopelessness. This seems like a stretch to me - I feel like suicide would be correlated with depression, an actual mental condition - but still, interesting to consider how sad striving for perfection and always falling short can make a person.
- I like the subway challenge (saying nonsensical things to strangers you'll never see again in the subway). Seemingly horrible things like that are often not nearly as bad as they seem.
- Burkeman at one point brought up the free will discussion / split brain experiments / confabulation that I've seen so many times before. I just wouldn't have expected that to show up here.
- Burkeman goes to a vipassana meditation camp for a week, where no one does any talking the whole time. It sounds awesome, and his description of "vipassana vendetta" is fascinating, and totally believable. Ties into things I've read before about confabulation and your brain just grasping at straws, trying to give narrative and meaning to things that have neither. I first read about vipassana maybe five or so years ago and have been fascinated by it ever since, I would love to go to a seminar like this someday.
- Strong and lengthy argument that understanding impermanence typically leads to increased happiness and satisfaction with the current situation. Things get a little 'Fight Club' (Raymond K Hessel), but coming to terms with knowing that you will be dead soon, and the you will, at some point, lose everything you have, helps you appreciate the present. I thought Burkeman presented this topic pretty well, and it left a pretty good impression on me. In the month or so since finishing the book, I feel like I've been more thoughtful of impermanence and appreciative of what I have. I think I'd like to explore that topic further, later on.
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.
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:
- Interesting observation about how brains recognize visual information - we "sparse code" it, meaning that our eyes/brains reduce the information to the least amount necessary. When we "see" something, we're really only literally observing a few characteristics of the object - the edges, the shading, etc. Then our brains "fill in" the rest with whatever pattern we expect to be there. This is far less cognitively expensive for us than than to actually try to notice every little detail of everything, all the time.
- Great discussion towards the end of the book about free will, with many compelling examples of confabulation in split-brain patients. It's very clear that our actions are not always as determined as we think they are, rather, we "decide" at some point, often unconsciously/intuitively, and then our brains are fantastic machines at giving that decision a narrative. Thus, we don't critically reason, and then make a decision. We make the decision, and then use reason to justify having done so. This is super creepy stuff, but compelling.
- In discussing the implications of advancements in artificial intelligence, Kurzweil spends some good time discussing his thoughts on the nature of consciousness. He reasonably assumes that we will soon have such sufficient AI as to be able to create beings with personalities (think Transformers or I, Robot) and asserts that such empathetic characters, despite being non-biological, are conscious. "If you do accept the leap of faith that a non-biological entity that is convincing in it's reactions to qualia is actually conscious, then consider what that implies. Namely, that consciousness is an emergent property of the overall pattern of an entity, not the substrate it runs on."
- Scientists are working on an artificial hippocampus, which is the part of your brain the recognizes novel events and stores them to memory. In rats, they've been able to insert the artificial hippocampus (with an on/off switch) into a rats brain, replacing the original one. When they turn the switch on, the rats gain "knowledge" stored in the artificial hippocampus, when they turn it off, the rat loses the knowledge. Similarly, instead of replacement, when they load up a rat with an "extra" hippocampus, it learns tasks much faster. The implications here for human brain augmentation are amazingly powerful. Not only is the "I know Kung Fu" scene in The Matrix totally possible, but this really made me expand what I considered bionics and brain activity to be. I have often thought about what people would be like with larger brains, or what a biological superior to humans would be (for instance, in the same way we're superior to cats). The answer is obvious - instant learning. Unlimited working memory. It's not x-ray vision or jax-arms like you'd see in comic books, but it will be many-order-of-magnitude increases in intelligence that mark the transformation. This is not science fiction. It's happening right now. Honestly, how long until we're immortal?
- Most of the book I was reminded that, in all likelihood, we are already living in a computer civilization.
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!
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:
- Interesting discussion of ideal apology times. For serious issues, max effect has a bell-curve like pattern over time. The more serious the issue, the more elongated the curve. That is, a small infraction means apologize immediately - whereas for a more egregious one you should wait some time, showing that you've really thought about it. This seems plainly obvious but the data and argument in the book is well done.
- Great explanation of people's own personal discount rates. $50 today vs $60 in a week - against $50 in 52 weeks and $60 in 53 weeks. The question in both cases is essentially, is it worth waiting one week for ten dollars? Most people would take $50 today, but $60 in 53 weeks. This illustrates an irrational (in homo-economicus terms) personal discount rate the declines over time. People construct pretty detailed surveys that can very accurately map a person's discount slope over time. Unsurprisingly, having low short term discount rates is highly correlated to successful people. More surprising is that such correlations are stronger than any other typical 'success' variables - e.g., wealth, IQ, education level. There were two sub-points here that blew me away.
- Similar experiments have been conducted with several different animals as well, and similar effects can be seen. Particularly, while they have different discount rates than average humans [theirs are quite a bit higher because they have small working memory and limited ability to think about the future], the slopes of their discount rates are the same as ours.
- There is strong and growing research showing that this 'ability to wait' general characteristic is genetic. It's not some willpower or character/upbringing stuff. There is a famous '2 marshmallow' research problem the tests for the characteristic in very young toddlers - and those that perform well early on have far more success in life. There is evidence that the characteristic comes from your heart's ability to speed up and slow down quickly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
- 1776. For some unknown reason I always assumed that the war must have ended in 1776. It just made sense to me that that's when we would have considered ourselves free, and I assumed that's when Washington assumed the presidency. Soooo far from the truth. We declared in '76, which kicked off the war (which didn't end until '83). Then we putz'd around for a few years trying to figure out how to govern ourselves, and then George was elected president in the late '80's.
- The French helped us massively in the war. They mainly did so to piss off the British - but they were a serious ally and we essentially have them to thank for our independence.
- Founding fathers were young. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the declaration. Crazy.
- Philadelphia was our first capital city. I guess it makes sense it wasn't "Washington", right? This one I did kind-of know before, but it hadn't actually sunk in until I was reading about the first continental congress having meetings there.
- Not everyone wanted to be independent. I guess this makes sense. There were a bunch of British loyalists that didn't really see the big deal.
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.
I re-read 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.
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:
- WS was not well educated and did not have access to royalty, but wrote as though he was/did.
- Toward the end of his life, WS was a loan shark and a malt trader.
- WS just seemed to disappear. No one knew him that well or biographied him during his lifetime.
- All WS left his wife in his will was a second rate bed - no huge gigantic fortune from being a father of modern literature.
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.
We're going to Paris in three weeks so I wanted to read something about Paris. This is what I learned:
- Paris is full of lazy, unionized a holes that aren't driven by money.
- That's about it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Creative problems that require a moment of insight are not solved by focusing on the problem. If you can't solve the problem, take your mind off of it for a bit.
- Engagement with other people, and other ideas, is critical. Creativity comes from having a deep well of ideas/conversations/cultures etc all stuffed somewhere in the back of your head.
- It's important to change your perspective when approaching problems. People automatically bring their own judgements/biases. Try to think about the same problem if it were in another country or situation. Do whatever you can to start from a clean slate perspective.
- Great discussion about why cities always grow and prosper and become more creative - but companies always grow and then decline and become less creative.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- A lot of what we know about the Khan's is from the "Secret History" scrolls, which were found relatively recently.
- For the last several hundred years, no one has been around Khan's region in Mongolia - the Soviet's were creeped out by it and sealed off the area to everyone - it's only now reopened.
- The Mongolian Khans were actually really great - Genghis Khan wasn't really the ruthless horrible guy he has the bad rap of. He was legit, and a fantastic ruler.
- Apparently he spread propaganda about how horrible and ruthless he was intentionally so that enemies would surrender.
- The Mongolians were very civil. They had some democratic features, free religion, experimented with paper money, and were all in all extremely progressive.
- Genghis was a military genius on his own land - and ended up conquering most of Asia (his sons grew the empire even further, pretty much all of Asia and half of Europe).
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 Andres Hiltbrunner Is Really Into" - but that probably would have limited marketing opportunities.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Feynman used to have lucid dreams. But instead of just having fun and enjoying them, he would actually carry out experiments during his dreams to try and figure out the nature of the senses and how his brain worked. Who else would ever do that?! His experiments were remarkably thoughtful as well - during his dreams!
- He had a great passage in their where he tried to describe frustrations with other people - in that it seemed to him like other people seem to "learn" by rote, rather than by genuine understanding - which leaves them unable to apply their knowledge to novel situations. "Their knowledge is so fragile." Ug - humiliating in it's accuracy.
- More than anything, Feynman's fearlessness at trying new things was impressive. He wanted to know more about how bloodhounds could smell so well - so he actually started smelling things himself, and doing experiments and actual, dedicated practice at trying to improve and refine his sense of smell - and it worked! Well!
- Another example - he wanted to know how ants always knew where they were going, and what determined their paths. So he would follow them around for hours with colored pencils, drawing their paths all over his house - using different colors for different ants and different shades for each new time they followed the same path - and he actually determines some really interesting conclusions about how the kinds of paths ants make, and how they must track each other.
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.
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.
Another foray into fiction. I saw this book at Powell's in Portland being advertsies 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 appriciate 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.
Fantastic, really great book about the scientific revolution - and particularly about Isaac Newton. It's gives a lot of great historical conext 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 accesible. 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.
Read this book over the summer and didn't write about it until a few months later, so I've forgoten most of it. It was definitely a great book, about the nurological pathways in your brain and about the biology behind things like addiction and happiness. I definitely would reccomend it.
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 surrondings. A week later you could propbably 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 contruct a virtual space inside your head, and then imagine whatever information you want as objects in that space. I tried it, it works.
Eh. This book is about the odd and (conventially) unexpected things that need to be considered before sending humans into space. It was pretty facinating 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.
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 dones'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 dispariging. 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 dissapointed that he lasted there as long as he did.
Honestly, I read these books because I loved the strong brading that the three different covers established. They were well designed, simple, and consistent. I really appriciated 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 two things that stuck out for me: first, Collins used the word "trembulous" to describe the sound of one of the character's voices, which I really thought was fantastic. The only other thing was a part of the book where everyone is at a luxurious party at 'the capital', where the characters eat until they're totally full, then pop a little pill and jump into the bathroom to vomit. Then, like it's no big deal, they go back out to the party to refill. It was just a great way to describe a culture of excess to have people go to eating parties and essentially have several different stomach-fulls of food.
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!
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...
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.
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.
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 condemming 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.
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 thinktank 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 Newtownian 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 thier fixed resources, and with electriity 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 extremly 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 contries 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.
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 relativly kind to a lot of the manageent. It didn't judge Skilling (CEO) or Lay (Founder/Chairman) too harshy. 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 takaway 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 ust days before the bankruptcy. (Not sure if that's a fair measurement though, since bonds downgrades often are what send you stright 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.
This was essentially Liars Poker: Part Two, but even more condemming. 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 writeoffs 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 mortgagebacked 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.
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.
- Women can smell out a preferred partner's scent in from their dirty t-shirts. The "smells" they find most attractive belong to males with specific genes that are most different than those of the women. Incredible! Men cannot do the same. However....
- All else held constant, men will tip an ovulating stripper twice as much as a non-ovulating one, and they'll tip half as much to a women currently on her period. (Hard to imagine exactly how other variables would be held constant here.. but interesting - there's no leading theory on how men are able to sense this).
- Having children pretty much always makes a marriage worse, by about 10%. All the way until they move out. (Kiddos do raise other levels of satisfaction.. probably to a net gain.. but still they always make marriage worse.) The takeaway here: go ahead and have kids if you want them, but don't ever do it to try and save a marriage.
- It costs $240,000 to raise one child to age 18. That doesn't include any opportunity cost either (stalled career, time off work, etc). That's a LOT.
- Disagreement about household duties are a major source of marriage trouble. It's a good idea to work them out equitably among both partners.
- Happiness may be genetic. Typically people spend their whole lives at a pretty constant level of overall happiness. Twins separated at birth are also typically equally happy, despite being raised differently and living in totally different conditions.
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.
I sometimes hear about people having a book that they go back and re-read 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 re-readability.
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.
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".
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:
- Holy crap gallium is awesome! It looks like solid aluminium, but melts at something like 80 deg fahrenheit. This means you can be holding a clump of it in your hand and have it melt into something exactly like mercury, right there in your hand! ...! (The book is named after an old chemists trick of making a tea spoon out of gallium. When you stick it in your tea, it melts, scaring the crap out of people)
- Explanation of aluminium vs aluminum. Apparently aluminium was once the most expensive and rare metal! Aluminium bullion was worth more than gold. Then John Hall figured out how to make loads of it for next-to-nothing. He ended up starting Alcoa and renaming the product Aluminum.
- I finally learned what the vacuum tubes in old school computers did. The vacuum was necessary for an electrical charge to only be able to move one way. That was the only way to keep a one way current going, until they figured out semi-conductors in germanium and then silicon. That's how they got the transistor. Then they finally figured out how to etch the whole thing on a single piece of silicon, which is literally the same design we're using today, just like a billion times smaller.
- The universe is 90% hydrogen, 10% helium. The rest is rounding error.
- Every element up to lead is created inside stars. All the ones (naturally occurring) heavier than lead are created during supernovas, when a star blows up with enough force that all the atoms around it collide and fuse into new elements. What?! (Elements are also made via radioactivity, but that's less interesting)
- There is an awesome theory that the Sun has a twin sun that it orbits with called Nemesis, which has it's own planets and asteroids orbiting it, and that each solar systems get close to each other every 20 million years or so, resulting in the regular asteroids that hit Earth every 20 million years or so and kill everything. Nemesis? Awesome name. The theory doesn't pan out, but it sounded so good.
- Maybe the most interesting bit was that humans don't have any way to sense if they're getting oxygen. That terrible feeling you get when you hold your breath? That's just your body saying "too much CO2!" It knows when you're not exhaling, but has no oxygen sensors. Which means, if you walk into a room filled with say, pure nitrogen gas, you would breathe in and out like normal and have no idea that you're about to pass out and die. Because you're body is still exhaling the CO2, you would feel just dandy until you got light headed and died. So weird.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.