2017 Book Reviews

Books Jon read in 2017:



candyTwo Kinds of Truth (A Harry Bosch Novel)

Michael Connelly


Reviewed November 26, by Jon. This was a pretty typical Connelly book. It featurs Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, his half-brother and weaves together two tenuously related stories. The mains story is about a pharmacy murder linked to the opioid epidemic. That is on behalf of the San Fernando police department where Bosch is working as an advisor. The second story is about a murder suspect Bosch put away years ago in San Quentin claiming that he was falsely convicted. As usual, the writing is good and entertaining, but very lightweight. Connelley's formula works, but is - well - formulatic.

Two Kinds of TruthPurchase Two Kinds of Truth from Amazon.com




candyOrigin: A Novel

Dan Brown


Reviewed November 11, by Jon. I hesitate to classify this as candy reading, because there is a hint of substance, but it is still kind of mindless reading so I'll keep it at candy with a hint of .The story is about a brilliant scientist, Edmund Kirsh, former student of Robert Langdon - the Harvard Semiotics professor protagonist in Brown novels, about to reveal a startling secret that threatens the destruction of the world's religions. As Kirsh is about to reveal his "secret", he is assassinated. There is a plot by the world religious leaders afoot, and the Spanish monarchy is involved. So it is unclear who done it. The central part of the book is about Langdon and the fiance of the Spanish Prince, Ambra Vidal, on the run and trying to figure out who done it. When the secret is revealed, it is kind of anticlimactic. It was a simulation that posits that technology will overtake humans as a species - with references to Ray Kurzweill, Peter Diamondis, and Kevin Kelly. Pretty standard techno optimist/dystopia stuff. So the big reveal and the battle against religion was kind of anticlimactic, the book was suspenseful and much took place in Barcelona with Gaudi buildings such as Sagrada Familia promininently features. This might well be a made for movie book.

OriginPurchase Origin from Amazon.com




The Cuban Affair

Nelson DeMille


Reviewed October 17, by Jon. Sometimes famous writers like DeMille devolve into formulaic writing by playing the same characters and themes over and over until they are stale. DeMille has done this but not in The Cuban Affair. This is a fresh story with fresh characters. The lead character is Danial MacCormick, and Afghanistan war veteren who lives in Key West living the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle as a fishing boat captain. He is approached by some Cuban Exiles for a mission to Cuba, which, of course involves a beautiful Cuban woman. The first 2/3 of the book was a travelogue, made especially interesting since we took a trip to Cuba with National Geographic (Mac went with a Yale group) and had almost the exact same expereince. The book is kind of slow until the last 1/2 with lots of action and intrigue. I really liked this book, would like to see more of Mac but please, please, don't overuse him until he is stale.

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HTML&CSS: Design and Build Websites

John Duckett


Reviewed October 14, by Jon. I’ve been redesigning the new rizbee.com website and have been trying to learn HTML and CSS. I kind of knew HTML but knew little about CSS. I found it quite a struggle because most books go through an exhaustive exposition of how this stuff works with way too much information about mechanics and too little practical information about how to use it. I found this book HTML&CSS. It is organized really simply, goes systematically through all of the HTML and CSS directives that I might use. Is very visual, includes code fragments and an example of how each works. I learn best by doing (oddly though I am a theory and frameworks kind of guy). I found this book way more useful than the other books I tried. I cannot say I read it cover to cover, I skimmed it. But I did find lots of useful information and it was a great companion as I developed my website. I suspect it will be a frequent and useful reference

HTML&CSSPurchase HTML&CSS from Amazon.com




Transcending CSS: The Fine Art of Web Design

Andy Clarke


Reviewed October 14, by Jon. Transcending CSS was an OK but not great book. The author clearly has opinions about web design, but I found the book a bit chaotic and hard to follow. He had examples but they were not well structured to show the result. It looks like Clark was trained in art rather than design. His lack of systematic rigor and clear communications shows. I might find this book useful for inspiration or examples but it would take an effort to use.

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The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye: A Lisbeth Salander Novel

David Lagercrantz


Reviewed October 3, by Jon. This is the fifth Salander novel, the second by Lagercrantz after the death of Steig Laarson. It is a continuation of many of the familiar characters - Salander herself, Mikael Blomkvist, Holger Palmgren, Anika Gianni, Erika Berger, and the members of the Swedish criminal justice system. The book starts with Salander in prison - where she is attacked by a fellow inmate. It carries on the themes of dark, mysterious conspiracy with the usual convoluted cast of Swedish characters. The book was OK and followed on in the Millenium tradition. Lagercrantz does a credible job of imitating Laarson but he just cannot quite get the Laarson suspense. It was worth reading to continue the saga and the series but otherwise a mediocre book.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for An EyePurchase The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye from Amazon.com




candyTo Kill The President

Sam Bourne


Reviewed September 6, by Jon. I found this book in the Frankfurt, Germany airport. It's back cover stated "The United States has elected a volatile demagogue as President, backed by his ruthless chief strategist, Crawford "Mac" MacNamara. When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launchig a nuclear attack, it is clear someone has to at, or the world will be reduced to ashes". Melodramatic, to be sure, but somewhat timely. I picked up the book and read it. It is a typical action thriller - sort of Ludlum-esque. The white house and the characters are pretty close to what we have today - only slight caricatures. The book was pretty interesting - because it played out a pretty plausible scenario. Candy reading, but very apropos to current events.

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Nemesis

Jo Nesbø


Reviewed September 4, by Jon. This is the second Nesbø novel I have read about reprobate Oslo detective Harry Hole. Like the previous novel, it was very dense and convoluted - made worse by a bunch of similar sounding Norwegian names for people and places. I liked this one better, though - perhaps because I was in Norway when reading it and perhaps because I read it in a relatively continuous way - on vacation - and it was easy to follow. I'm not yet a big fan but this one at least led me to want to read another.

NemesisPurchase Nemesis from Amazon.com




candyWorking Fire

Emily Bleeker


Reviewed September 1, by Jon. This is lightweight summer candy reading. It is about the lives of two young women in rural Illinois, one a paramedic the other a housewife. They get caught up in a family murder drama. The book uses the device of alternating chapters of present time and earlier time starting about 5 weeks from the present time. The alternating chapters converge over the course of the book. Bleeker is able to create lots of suspense but the characters are pretty shallow and the story is week. Working Fire is good entertaining escapist fare, nothing more.

Working FirePurchase Working Fire from Amazon.com




Hue 1968: A Turning Point Of the Amerian War in Vietnam

Mark Bowden


Reviewed August 29, by Jon. Like Black Hawk Down, Hue is an epic book about a military battle. This one is the fiercest battle of the Vietnam war and one that turned the course of the war. I have visited Hue a couple of times so I was able to put the battle into geographical context. The book is incredibly detailed, almost to a fault. Bowden tells the story from the vantage point of a number of U.S. Marines (and a few journalists) as well as Vietnamese soldiers from both sides. Hue vividly depicts the savagery and despair of the battle. THe battle lasted for three weeks but it seemed to go on forever - perhaps because of Bowden's detailed reporting. He conveyed the texture and feel of the battle - made even more vivid for me having visited Hue. Hue is different from other Vietnam books in that it does not dissect the policy so much as go into gory (literally) detail of one, specific battle and uses that to paint a larger story about the war as a whole.

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Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and The Storming of the Presidency

Joshua Green


Reviewed Augusts 28, by Jon. This was an interesting read right after Bannon's ouster from the White House. It chronicles Bannon's history and role in the Trump campaign but more importantly chronicles the campaign itself. Much of the story was stuff I had read in the news during the campaign but it had more force after the campaign was successful. It paints Trump as a an opportunistic politician driven by ego and a desire to get elected, not a particularly ideology or policy perspective. I would have liked a little more on Bannon's background and worldview. Clearly the nationalist and populist world view got Trump elected. The most salient section at the very end of the book gave three reasons the Trump administration has fallen into disorder and confusion:

  1. Trump thought being president was about asserting dominance.
  2. Trump ran against the Republican Party, Wall Street, and Paul Ryan but then took up their agenda
  3. Trump doesn't fundamentally believe in nationalism or any other political philosophy - he's fundamentally a creature of his own ego.

Overall, a good read into a terrifying chapter in American history.

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Conscience of a Conservative

Jeff Flake


Reviewed August 27th, by Jon. Jeff Flake is the junior senator from Arizona. He grew up in a Mormon family on a cattle ranch near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Flake is very critical of Donald Trump because he feels he does not live up to the conservative principles espoused by Barry Goldwater. He wrote the book without the knowledge of his staff because he thought they would prevent him from publishing it - as it was political suicide. I like the fact that Flake is standing up to Trump and articulating that Trump is without principles. I share some of Flake's values - he has some of the good aspects of Mormonism. I am a bit concerned that he has uncritical admiration for Barry Goldwater and a very conservative free market (low taxes and regulations) agenda. They have shown not to work. I do admire Flake for speaking out. He espouses a working together in a post-partisan fashion. I look forward to seeing him demonstrate that ability.

Conscience of a ConservativePurchase Conscience of a Conservative from Amazon.com




candyThe Late Show

Michael Connelly


Reviwed August 24, by Jon. This is a new Connelly book introducing a new character, Renee Ballard, a surfer detective who lives out of her van and sleeps on the beach during the day (she works the night shift). The story is OK, not great, kind of a typical Conelly crime novel. Ballard kills a suspect who is attacking her sand is, thus, subject to an officer involved killing investigation. Like Bosch before her, she has had run-ins with the police department and is considered somewhat of a rogue. It will be interesting to see where Connelly takes Ballard as a character. He has had a long run with Bosch but Bosch is getting long in the tooth. Maybe Ballard can keep some of the magic of Bosch with a revived story line.

The Late ShowPurchase The Late Show from Amazon.com




I Am Pilgrim

Terry Hayes


Reviewed August 13, by Jon. I Am Pilgrim is a very gripping spy novel. The protagonist is a covert operative from a shadowy organization that is deeply under cover and reports directly to the White House. He is a retired but comes back when a Saudi radical physician plots to unleash a smallpox epidemic in the U.S. Pilgrim goes to Turkey under cover as an FBI agent investigating a murder of a wealthy American. There are a number of implausible parts of the book – not the least the tenuous connection between the main story and the Turkey investigation. Those weaknesses are made up for by the writing style. Hayes has created a page-turner in the best Ludlum/Connelley tradition. It is easy to get hooked and hard to put down. A great prescription for summer reading.

I Am PilgrimPurchase I Am Pilgrim from Amazon.com




Machine, Platform, Crowd

Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson


Reviewed July 9, by Jon. This book, by the MIT economist authors of The Second Machine Age, looks at artificial intelligence (the machine),  matching sites such as uber and Airbnb (Platform), and open innovation (the crowd). They lucidly describe what is going on with these things and posit that they will fundamentally reshape society. They don’t really answer the question of what is in store for the future of work but are fundamentally techno-optimists who feel that the confluence of these trends will both change work and society but also provide new work and new opportunities. I would like to believe this but we need to find ways to use all three as leverage for human abilities, not as substitutes. The book is well-written and provocative – but, as these kinds of books generally do, raises more questions than providing answers

Machine, Platform, CrowdPurchase Machine, Platform, Crowd from Amazon.com




A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System

T.R. Reid


Reviewed July 3, by Jon. A  Fine Mess is about a subject that is supposed to be boring – taxes. But it is not, it is actually a very interesting book. Reid walks us through taxation ideas – all kinds of taxes – income, property, financial transaction, value added, … and compares the U.S. with tax systems around the world. Despite political rhetoric, we (the U.S.) are far from the most taxed nation in the world. Reid uses the acronym WBLR – widen the base and lower rates – that, apparently, is a mantra for tax experts world wide. He advocates – for both individual and corporate taxes, lowering rates but getting rid of all exemptions and deductions. That would dramatically simplify the tax code, make it fairer, and provide the income needed to fund the services we all demand from government. He correctly identifies Congress as the problem – beholden to lobbying from special interests. He also advocates carbon taxes and financial transaction taxes – as well as considering a Value-added tax. He also debunks the value of a “flat tax” and the scourge of carried interest. Reid’s analysis is lucid and his recommendations clear. It is unfortunate that our political “leaders” don’t step up and do their jobs. With a straightforward rewrite of the tax code, they could make it much simpler and fairer and free up billions of dollars in resources that go into tax preparation and tax dodging – for more productive uses. 

A Fine MessPurchase A Fine Mess from Amazon.com




Designing Your Life: How to Build a well-lived and joyful life

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans


Reviewed June 11, by Jon. Bill Burnett is executive director of the Stanford Design Program. He decided to apply design thinking to the problem of life and career planning and came up with this book as an outgrowth of a course he and Evans taught applying design thinking to life. As with many books in this genre, the authors expect you to do a lot of exercises. That always bogs me down. I did a few but then let go and just read the book. Design Your Life does what it purports to do – it applies a design mindset to lift planning – researching the problem, reframing, generating options, prototyping, … letting your old designs go. Familiar stuff, but well-applied to the problem of life and career. I saw myself in some of the exercises and advice I have given to people I have taught and mentored. This is a good book and a nice way to bring design to a broader audience and practical use.  

Designing Your LifePurchase Designing Your Life from Amazon.com




Who Are We? The Challenges to American’s National Identity

Samuel P. Huntington


Reviewed May 13, by Jon. Who Are We addresses the issues of American National Identity. Huntington asserts that the core of our national identity is white, English (and English-speaking), Protestant, and adhering to a particular American creed. He also asserts that our culture is in danger of unravelling because of multiculturalism – particularly from an influx of Mexicans. Sounds like a perfect foil for the conservative right, and it is. He does make a well-argued case, but one fundamental tenet is that is how we started, is that still how we should be? The book challenged some of my assumptions and reinforced others. One that was reinforce was around assimilation. He said cultures which assimilate immigrants are more successful and more stable. The U.S. did a good job of assimilation – although that eroded with Mexican immigrants. We can see a similar thing in Europe, where there are middle eastern enclaves or ghettos, there seems to be much more unrest. Who Are We is good in that it challenged my conventional thinking. Given how the tide of Mexican immigration has turned, I feel it might have overstated the threat of Mexicans and Central Americans forever altering American society

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The Knife: A Novel

Ross Ritchell


Reviewed May 23, by Jon. The Knife is about a U.S. Special Forces unit deployed to the middle east (Afghanipakiraqistan). The book starts with the team at their base in the U.S. They are deployed on short notice to the middle east. The books covers a few weeks of their deployment culminating in a disastrous operation. It ends with the main character accompanying the remains of some of his fallen buddies home. The story is not great but the depiction of the special forces soldiers, their lives, and their work is well done. The book is more about that that the story per se. It is worthwhile as a window onto the lives of special operators.

The KnifePurchase The Knife from Amazon.com




White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America

Joan C. Williams


Reviewed May 19, by Jon. This builds on (and refers to) Strangers in Their Own Land and Hillbilly Elegy to explain the white working class to liberal elites. Williams is probably the most straightforward of authors in this genre to explain that the white working class resents paying taxes for handouts to the poor. She acknowledges many of the issues with the white working class- racism, sexism, etc. but asks us to accept them. She does address the loss of jobs but, rather than encouraging everybody to go to college, suggests that we need to revive technical and vocational education (plumbers, EMTs, …) which are middle-skill jobs with a chronic shortage of labor. The book is well written and covers a lot of ground. A pretty lucid explanation of the white working class in contrast to educated elites. If you are an educated elite, this book was written to (and will) help you understand the white working class perspective/

White Working ClassPurchase White Working Class from Amazon.com




Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco

Gary Kamiya


Reviewed May 7 by Jon. This was recommended by our friends Doug and Anh. The book consists of 49 short essays about some aspect of San Francisco history and geography. Doug recommended having a map nearby when reading and he was right. It would be very helpful to see where various places are. Kamiya is a life-long resident of the Bay Area and his vignettes of San Francisco paint a nice, textured view of the city and its history. I liked the more recent vignettes better than some of the older ones – I suppose they were easier to relate to. This is worth reading to understand where we are and where we came from.

Cool Gray City of LovePurchase Cool Gray City of Love from Amazon.com




The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order

Samual Huntington


Reviewed May 7, by Jon. I have often heard of the late Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington. This is one of his epic books. His fundamental thesis is that wars and other conflicts are no longer between nation states but are clashes of civilizations. He identifies the world’s dominant civilizations – the west (Europe and the U.S), China, Japan, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, African, and Latin American …. And says that they, not countries are where conflicts will arise – because of incompatible world views. The book was written in 1996 – after the first Gulf War and before the second. Huntington correctly identifies a conflict between the west and Islam. He seems to believe such conflicts are inevitable and we need to learn to manage them. At the end of the book he lists a number of prescriptions around strengthening our role in the world without intervening in the affairs of other civilizations. Sage advice, but much of what he suggested is anathema to the current political regime in the U.S. In some ways Huntington’s views diverge from mine and in other ways support them. I did find his lens on the world useful and coherent – particularly the view that civilizations are clashing.

The Clash of CivilizationsPurchase The Clash of Civilizations from Amazon.com




candyWar Cry: A Courtney Family Novel

Wilbur Smith


Reviewed May 2, by Jon. This is yet another Wilbur Smith saga. This one focuses on Saffron Courtney, daughter of Leon Courtney, Kenya-based scion of the Courtney family. Saffron falls in love with Manfred von Meerbach, son of a German industrialist with a connection to Saffron. They are separated by WWII. Manfred is a German pilot, Saffron is an English/Kenyan who the government tries to recruit as a spy. A typical Wilbur Smith novel with manly men and beautiful, competent women. It is yet another plank in the overall Courtney saga. A candy read – but great for when you want it.

War CryPurchase War Cry from Amazon.com




This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class

Elizabeth Warren


Reviewed May 1, by Jon. I wanted to like this book, but found it a bit too populist. I have enormous respect for Elizabeth Warren and her position that we need to better regulate the financial sector and provide consumers with financial protection (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). I was looking forward to a systematic exposition of her viewpoints. Instead, the book is a folksy tome that feels like it was ghost written to make her feel like a “regular” person and appeal to the average voter. I suppose there is nothing wrong with that per se, I just felt that it was a book of “pop politics” and lacked substance. Her policy positions were clear and woven through but the book suffers from too much partisanship and populism. I would have liked it better if it were more objective and substantive.

This Fight is Our FightPurchase This Fight is Our Fight from Amazon.com




An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back

Elisabeth Rosenthal


Reviewed April 23, by Jon. This is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive view of the American healthcare system by a physician turned journalist. The striking thing about the book is how the healthcare system has deviated from its primary purpose of providing health and well being to an immense business enterprise, thus distorting its purpose in favor of profitability. She chronicles how vested interests – drug makers, insurance companies, hospitals, providers.. have all focused in increasing their own profitability at the expense of the system. In many cases – think insurance coding – there is a huge game going on with doctors and hospitals trying to maximize payment and insurance companies trying to minimize it – that wastes huge amount of resources with little societal benefit. As a recent, and continuing, patient in the healthcare system, I saw many of these things first-hand. As interesting and revealing as this book was about the healthcare system, I think it is representative of a bigger problem. The way our institutions – business and government – have evolved into a symbiotic relationship that tries to maximize money and power, they have lost sight of their fundamental societal purpose. This seems to be a systemic problem – that is endemic across all of society. How do we fix it? Dr. Rosenthal has prescriptions for the healthcare system – but they seem like patches that will not fix the overall problem. I expect we could find similar books about many, many institutions in our society.

An American SicknessPurchase An American Sickness from Amazon.com




We’ll Always Have Casablanca

Noah Isenberg


Reviewed April 10, by Jon. This book is a very detailed behind the scenes look at Casablanca. I had to watch the movie just to get in the mood. It was OK, but not great. It did show a lot of the context – political, business, entertainment around the times, the actors, and the story. A pretty candy read, but I give it a thumbs down because I could not really recommend it.

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The Alchemy of Growth: Practical Insights for Building the Enduring Enterprise

Mehrdad Baghai, Stephen Coley, David White


Reviewed April 9, by Jon. This a strategy classic written by three McKinsey consultants about the three horizons of growth. I re-read it because the three horizons model is getting popular within my company but is being applied inconsistently. The book is good about laying out the overall framework – although elements are scattered throughout. It would have been better if the framework were succinctly described in one place, but, alas, like many business books, you cannot do that if you need to have a certain length. The book was originally written in 1999 so the examples (Enron!?!) are dated, but the framework is still useful and timeless.

Alchemy of GrowthPurchase The Alchemy of Growth from Amazon.com




Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam

H.R. McMaster


Reviewed April 3, by Jon. Dereliction of Duty is a classic book on the failure of the military and civilians to remain aligned around strategic objectives. It is even more important now that its author, H.R. McMaster has been named U.S. National Security Advisor. The book chronicles the decision-making that led to the Vietnam was. Lyndon Baines Johnson did not really want to get into the war. He inherited Vietnam from Kennedy. Johnson wanted to focus on implementing the Great Society and hired Robert McNamara as his Secretary of Defense. He had McNamara effectively insulate him from the joint chiefs. Johnson wanted to be very parsiomonious in the resources committed to Vietnam. The chiefs wanted the resources to win and a strategy to win. Johnson and McNamara focused on tactics (e.g body counts). The ultimate less of the book is about the need for a clear strategy, alignment between the military and civilian leaders, and support of the populace. The book is very detailed and tedious at times but contains valuable lessons on strategy, war, and politics.

Dereliction of DutyPurchase Dereliction of Duty from Amazon.com




The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and their Epic Quest for Gold at The 1936 Berlin Olympics

Daniel James Brown


Reviewed April 2 by Jon. I have to admit, when my friend, Heather, told me about this book and extolled its many virtues, I was skeptical. I mean, a book about a crew team winning to compete at the Berlin Olympics? Instead, the book is really the story of one of the team, Joe Rantz – and traces his life from childhood through old age. The book covers a bit of the flavor of Pre WWII Nazi Germany, although, in some ways, in only a token fashion. The book is really about rowing and the teamwork required. It describes rowing as a very team sport. One cannot succeed without radical collaboration. The book is engaging and well-written. It is hard to describe, but Heather was right.

The Boys In the BoatPurchase The Boys In The Boat from Amazon.com




Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Jane Meyer


Reviewed March 26, by Jon. Dark Money is a very illuminating book. Meyer, a writer for The New Yorker, chronicles the rise of the money behind the radical right. Focusing largely, but not exclusively, on the Koch brothers, she shows how the right – specifically a very libertarian strain of the right – set up think tanks (Cato Institute, Club for Growth) and mechanisms (Financing campaigns, superPacs, and gerrymandering) to capture U.S. electoral politics. Their goal is clearly a business goal – to do away with taxes and regulation – not something that the average person wants- but something that these very wealthy plutocrats want. Interestingly, a number of figures from the Trump cabinet, and environs, appear – Betsy De Voss, Wilbur Ross, Mike Pompeo, Steve Bannon, and Sheldon Adelson, Mike Pence. It is clear that this group has captured part of the Republican establishment. Given the recent failure to overturn the Affordable Care Act because of a constituent rebellion, what is not clear is what happens when a group of people dead set on capturing politics for their own narrow interests, meets a broader, populist constituency. Meyer goes to great detail to trace the money flows and people. If she is accurate, a very small number of very wealthy people are trying – with some success – to steer the country in a direction which will enhance their already considerable wealth at the expense of the rest of us.

Dark MoneyPurchase Dark Money from Amazon.com




The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream

Tyler Cowan


Reviewed March 20, by Jon. Cowan is a conservative economist who seems to have a pretty lucid viewpoint on society. The thesis of The Complacent Class is that society in the past 20 years or so has become complacent – focusing on safety and security – and, thus, has damaged the dynamism of our society. He contrasts the political foment of the 60s and 70s with today and posits that we sought security in the 80s and 90s. Cowan’s argument builds upon his previous theme that the US is undergoing a great stagnation – innovation has slowed down and we are stagnating. This is part of a bigger argument in the economics community – silicon valley things innovation has sped up and others think it has stagnated. What may be truer is that innovation is not evenly distributed. It exists in some sectors and geographies and not others. What does seem to be true is that industries (including Tech) are concentrating and focusing more on scale than innovation. Regarding the role of government, it does seem that businesses are lobbying governments to create regulations and situations that protect them from competition. I think there is some veracity to Cowan’s arguments. If they are correct, at some point other societies (e.g. China) will become more dynamic and overtake us or, fractures in American society will result in more foment and revolution which will restore dynamism. I’m not sure I buy Cowan’s argument completely but it is an intriguing argument that bears consideration in looking at the entire spectrum of economic outcomes.

Complacent ClassPurchase The Complacent Class from Amazon.com




White Trash; The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America

Nancy Isenberg


Reviewed March 10, by Jon. This is an ambitious work covering the beginning of the American colonies to the present day. It starts by debunking the myth that those who settled the New World were all noble farmers and tradesmen. Early on, England dumped some of its criminals and lower class into the colonies – some who moved west into Appalachia and some of who settled the East and South as “unlanded” people – also sometimes referred to as waste people. There was conflict in the South because these unlanded white people competed against slave labor. The wealthy Southerners wanted to perpetuate slavery because they feared that paid labor would result in competition between former slaves and white trash. The book ends with a discussion of contemporary “trailer trash” and some of the symbolic icons  - Elvis, Dolly Pardon, James and Tammy Bakker – and politicians who “represented” white trash – LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. This was a sprawling history from which it was a little hard to draw a conclusion. The conclusion I drew is that there has always been a white “underclass” in America – and consequent competition with black citizens and Hispanic immigrants. There is a culture of dependency that exists either just below the surface of our society or manifests itself overtly – and has been a strong influence on politics and society. I guess that culture emerged to vote Donald Trump into office. The book predates Trump’s election but there is a pretty clear line of sight from some of the culture described in the book to Trump’s election.

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Hamilton

Ron Chernow


Reviewed February 18, 2017 by Jon. This is a sprawling biography of Alexander Hamilton. It took a look time to read because it is so detailed – almost a year-by-year chronology of Hamilton’s life. I did not know much about Hamilton but this book clearly put him into perspective. Hamilton was the founder and leader of the Federalists – who advocated a strong federal government and good relations with England. It was the providence of northeastern bankers and laid the foundation for an industrial society. The opposition was the democratic-republican party (not the same as the current parties) led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who envisioned more power to the states and an agrarian society. Although neither party survived in its original form, the book showed how the seeds of our current political system were planted. It also showed that the founders squabbled a lot and the constitution and elements of our political system we enshrine were developed by men with competing interests and ultimately resulted in compromise. Slavery was a big issue back then with the Federalists opposing and the opposition (who represented a lot of Southern plantations) supporting. Hamilton himself was a fascinating character. I did not realize how young he was and how influential. This was an epic book that took a lot to get through – but is a fascinating picture of our founding fathers.

HamiltonPurchase Hamilton from Amazon.com




A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of the Military CIA

Joshua Kurlantzick


Reviewed January 25, by Jon. This is about a covert war waged in Laos during the Vietnam war by the CIA. Largely ignored by the US public it was funded and staffed by CIA advisors. A huge part of the population was killed and the war led to a large number of Hmong refugees entering the U.S in a very dysfunctional manner. The book chronicles the war, the characters in the war (including the US ambassador who effectively acted as paramilitary commander). It also described the effects on the CIA. Even though the communists ultimately prevailed in Southeast Asia (at least for a time)  The CIA considered the war a success because it tied up North Vietnamese troops who would otherwise be fighting US military in Vietnam. The war became a template for CIA paramilitary operations and the author asserts that the CIA and US special forces have built a large paramilitary force. He asserts that the CIA focuses more on paramilitary ops than on intelligence collection. This is a well-written book that covers both a fascinating aspect of US military history and the impact on the CIA and on how we conduct clandestine foreign policy.

A Great Place to Have a WarPurchase A Great Place to Have a War from Amazon.com




The Design of Everyday Things

Don Norman


Reviewed January 25, by Jon. This is the second edition of Don’s classic book on human-centered design – originally written 25 years ago, it still has salient lessons. As Don points out, technology changes, but human beings don’t all that much (although he concedes by the end fo the book that they just might). I found, in re-reading the book how much of it I remember. It has really stuck with me and formed the basis for much of how I look at design and technology. Don clearly established in my mind the idea that technology that does not work is a design failure, not a user failure. The frameworks and ideas that Don puts forth have stood the test of time. It was well worth re-reading and I expect I will read again. At 80, Don remains a fresh mind and a curmudgeon. It will be interesting to  see what he does next.

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candyTools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, Habits of billionaries, icons, and world-class performers.

Tim Ferris


Reviewed January 22, by Jon. I got this book for Christmas from someone on my team. Ferris is the author of the 4-hour workweek and 4-hour body. He does a bunch of podcasts and this book is excerpted from those. It is basically a bunch of podcasts organized into health, wealth, and wise. It is design for skimming (which I did liberally). Turns out I know a number of the characters he interviewed in the book. It is kind of a pop self-help book with lots of fairly predictable (and some surprising) advice. I was surprised by how many people meditated for at least 30 minutes a day. The book is a monster at 674 pages, but is easily – as Ferris recommends – skimmable.

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Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way you Think

Dave Gray


Reviewed January 14, 2017 by Jon. Liminal Thinking is a simple book about some simple ideas that could have profound impact. Gray’s fundamental precept is that while there is an objective reality we cannot truly know it. We all build our models of the world – beliefs- based on our experiences. Since we all have different experiences, we all have different models of the world. Our models are approximations of the world and none of us has complete fidelity on reality. However, as our beliefs become reinforces, they become “obvious” and thus invisible to us. Much of the conflict in the world is there result of incompatible belief systems. Liminal Thinking provides a number of techniques to help one see their beliefs and get out of them to see the world from a different perspective. Liminal means “boundary” or “threshold” and Gray’s techniques help us escape the boundaries of our beliefs. This book seems  “obvious” and simplistic. However what it does is create a very simple way of thinking about the world that takes us outside ourselves. Maybe it will create enough perspective that I can better see how others see the world, create some empathy, and make some change. We shall see.

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The Internet of Things

Samuel Greengard


Reviewed January 14, 2017 by Jon. This is a monograph from the MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series written in 2015. It was a fascinating little book in a funny way. Most of the things that Greengard talks about are things I am familiar with and, at least in prototype phase, many already exist. What is fascinating is that this book might have seemed like far-out science fiction in 2015 but now is commonplace. A case in point, Greengard talks about his home and says his wireless router has 19 ip addresses connected to it. My home has currently has 84 wifi ip addresses and 175 unique addressable devices. The book presents a nice compact compelling view of IoT and the possibilities – and the issues and challenges. It feels very much in the Wired magazine tradition It does just go to show how quickly books become out of date. Is the book as a form of communication about such things obsolete?

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Goto Legacy Books - prior to 2017