Reviews of Recently Read Books
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Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander Novel, continuing Steig
Larsson's Millenium Series
Reviewed December 18, by Jon. Like other writers who attempt to extend someone else's franchise, Lagercrantz got some elements right, but in a lot of subtle ways he was unable to recreate the magic that Steig Larsson was able to embody in his novels. The Girl in The Spider's Web has a lot of the familiar characters - especially Lisbeth Salendar, Mikael Blomkvist, and a large cast of confusing Swedish characters. The story line is an extension of previous Salandar stories. It was an ok book which did have some of the elements, but it was not Steig Larsson's writing.
Reviewed December 6, by Jon. This is a classic progressive analysis of what is wrong with the American Economy and how to fix it. The premise of the first part of the book is that the rules are rigged to create more inequality. The current rules favor returns to capital over labor, inequality in pay, discrimination, and a rule structure that creates excessive financialization of the economy. I pretty much agreed with the diagnosis. The prescriptions in the second half of the book were pretty standard progressive ideas as well. While I generally agreed with them, they seemed a little rote. I am not sure, for example, that going back to collective bargaining for labor will actually address the challenges of reducing returns to labor. I generally agreed with most of the book but some of the ideas are old and need updating for a 21st century economy.
Reviewed Nov 28, by Jon. This is yet another Harry Bosch novel - and one of the better recent ones. In The Crossing, Bosch is retired (he always seems to be on the verge of retirement in some kind of limbo) from LAPD and takes a case on the other side - working for his half-brother, defense attorney Mickey Haller. He has a hard time working for the defense but determines that the accused might actually be innocent. Haller makes an appearance, but is a minor character - this book is all about Bosch. In The Crossing, Connelly has gotten past his somewhat formulaic approach of recent years and gotten back to the magic of a gripping Harry Bosch story. Let's hope this is the beginning of a trend that continues.
A Journey with a Pilot
Reviewed Nov 8, by Jon. Mark Vanhoenacker is a British Airways 747 pilot. The book is about the life of a 747 long-haul pilot. It covers both the feel and the details of such as task. It is very well written and of interest to those who know a lot about aviation and those who know it mostly as travelers. He addresses a lot of questions of navigation, geography, weather, aviation logistics, flight, and travel in a very accessible and informative style. I have to say, this is one of my favorite aviation books. Not only did I appreciate it as a pilot - but also as one who has taken many a long-haul 747 flight.
for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception
Reviewed Nov 1, by Jon. Phishing for Phools is a repudiation of pure free market economics. Akerlof and Shiller provide abundant evidence of something that seems obvious people are always trying to manipulate others for economic gain from big tobacco to politics to finance phishers are creating stories that Phools buy and do thing that are ecomomically against their interests. The authors bring together behavioral economics with free market and make the case that government is necessary to regulate Phishers and protect all of us phools from ourselves. Pretty obvious stuff but worth saying.
Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few
Reviewed October 25, by Jon. This is the latest book by Robert Reich and has some similarities to Other People's Money. Reich describes widening income inequality and decreasing returns to labor. While I generally agree with Reich, this book seemed repetitive with little new information. Reich also seems to harken back to the days when there were plentiful jobs for marginally educated workers. While I like many of his points - he vilifies corporate America too much (although I think he is spot on relative to the financial sector) and he believes we will bring back low-skilled manufacturing jobs. I wish he had been a bit more nuanced in thinking about how we build a 21st century workforce in an era when there is less need for unskilled manufacturing and construction labor.
Reviewed October 17, by Jon. Kay is an academic who was also on the board of a large UK bank. His fundamental premise is that the banking system has become too self-referential and insular. Kay says there are four fundamental tasks that society needs the financial system to do: manage the payments system, matching lenders with borrowers, management of household financial affairs across our lifetimes and between generations, and helping us manage risks. Kay describes how the finance system has gone beyond these functions to focus self-referentially on trading. It has thus grown to be a much larger part of the economy than society needs. Further, it siphons off talent and other resources that could better be deployed elsewhere. Kay is not just bashing the financial system but really focuses on what finance should do for society and what it does. He believes finance is over-regulated. However, he also believes that governments are necessary to shape and regulate markets. I really liked Kay's message but was unclear about how to get the result he advocates. He does not want more regulation yet it is unclear how to change the finance system without regulation. He seems to want financiers to realize the folly of their ways and change their culture. I expect that is unlikely. Given that I accept Kay's thesis - how do we go about reforming a financial system that is clearly focused on generating "wealth" through trading for itself and not for the good of society? One thing that could be done immediately is to pass legislation under consideration that imposes a fiduciary duty on financial advisors. The financial industry is fighting this because it "limits choice". Sounds like it limits bad choices to me. If the role of the financial services industry is to provide services to society, it should support this prohibition on self-dealing.
Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
Reviewed October 17, by Jon. Destiny Disrupted is just what its title says it is - a history of the world from an Islamic perspective rather than a western perspective. Some of it was repetitious - such as the schism between Shia and Sunnis - but some was new such as the repeated attempts by Europeans to conquer the Islamic world (Crusades) and the invasions of the Mongols. It was interesting to view the Islamic world from a different perspective. One lesson - from here and other places - is that there is no central authority but a number of factions in Islam - thus, leading to lots of interpretation of the Koran and lots of inter-Islamic rivalry. Another was Islam's struggle to address modernity - they knew they had, at one point, been intellectual leaders but fell behind and there were three conflicting ways to deal with the situation. Some of that is evident today with Wahabbisim and other more secular versions of Islam all competing. I'm not sure I buy everything the author says but it is worthwhile to look at history through multiple lenses.
Bangkok Asset:A Novel
Reviewed September 8, by Jon. This is another in the series of Sonchai Jitpleecheep (Thai police detective) novels. Sonchai is half Thai and half-American. His mother was a Bangkok prostitute and his father an American GI in Vietnam. Sonchai determines that his father was part of CIA experiment to create super-human warriers. The book was OK but not great. It was entertaining but Burdett is getting a bit formulaic.
Reviewed August 29, by Jon. Ashlee Vance wrote a good bio of Elon Musk. The book really gave a sense of Musk as a person and his drive to reinvent space, cars, and energy. A point that Vance made which really resonated with me is that Musk wanted to do things that affect the real economy instead of the virtual economy (social media). Musk sounds like a pretty driven and unique character - the next generation of innovators to take the mantle from Steve Jobs and BIll Gates. I particularly liked the background behind Tesla - makes me want to go buy a Model S. The book is well written and easy to read.
Set a Watchman: A Novel
Reviewed August 2, by Jon. Go Set A Watchman is Harper Lee's controversial sequal to To Kill A Mockingbird - one of my all time favorite novels. Scout (Jean Louise Finch) is an adult living in New York and returns to her native Macomb. She finds that her father Atticus is actually a supporter of a group that reveres the South as it was and condones a KKK speaker. Overall, I liked the book. Lee has a writing style that is clear and evocative. SHe brought back a lot of memories of To Kill a Mockingbird. The controversy surrounds taking Atticus, a larger than live character, and making him fallible and human. I thought that was OK. The explanation for why the South is the way it is is compelling - although I don't agree with its premise. The biggest flaw in the book is that it ends abruptly without resolution. It is almost as if the book is unfinished. Perhaps that is actually the case.
of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Reviewed July 26, by Jon. Rise of the Robots is very similar to The Second Machine Age, but not as good. Ford chronicles robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, etc. with the view that capital and technology will ultimately replace labor. He is skeptical that education can outrun the advance of technology and, in the end, advocates a guaranteed annual income. I agree with the premise but the timeframes might be a bit compressed. He is almost certainly right relative to low-skill, low-wage workers. Overall the book seemed a bit sloppy - but had some interesting ideas.
Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War
Reviewed July 26, by Jon. Ghost Fleet is set a few years in the future and is a about a world war between the U.S. and China. It employs all kinds of technology - drones, cyber warfare, robotics, exoskeletons, mind-enhancing drugs, etc. One of the author P. W. Singer, wrote about robotic warfare in Wired for War. This is a fictional account in which the Chinese (in cahoots with the Russians) occupy Hawaii using lots of high tech. Much of the story takes place in San Francisco - with a lot of inaccuracy. For example, Singer talks about the ghost fleet of old Navy warships that is in mothballed in Suisen Bay. There were about 40 ships a few years ago but the Navy has been removing them - now it is down to about 4 or 5. The authors tried to follow a Tom Clancy kind of approach - cutting back and forth between different story threads. It kind of works but, like Clancy, it is distracting. The story is not great but it does show how technology might affect warfare - which, I suppose, is the point of this book.
Reviewed July 17, by Jon. Radiant Angel is a sequel to The Panther, in which John Corey is now a member of the State Department Diplomatic Surveillance Group - following some Russians who want to blow up New York City with a nuclear weapon aboard a luxury yacht off the coast of Long Island. Pretty classic DeMille, from the Long Island location to the John Corey character. Good summer escapist reading. Not as good as The Panther, though.
Road to Character
Reviewed July 3, by Jon. In The Road to Character, Brooks describes two sets of virtues - resume virtues - what you have accomplished, and eulogy virtues - about your character or the core of your being. The book has biographical sketches of a number of historical figures and tries to draw lessons about eulogy virtues or character from each story. The stories were OK, but sometimes tedious and rambling. It was difficult to draw the lessons from the stories. It seemed like this might have made a fine op-ed column or essay, but really fell down as a book. It is not David Brooks best work.
of Park Avenue: A Memoir
Reviewed July 3, by Jon. Martin is an anthropologist who moved from lower Manhatten to the Upper East Side with her financier husband. As she got immersed in the culture of the Upper East Side, she was appalled at the tribal behavior of the inhabitants - particularly the wives. She decided to apply her anthropological skills to do a field guide to Upper East Side society. The book is very snarky and is a bit of a self-indulgent autobiograpy, but is is pretty entertaining in a candy kind of way. Here anthropological references and metaphors are very contrived. A light, fun, summer read - with a dark undertone.
Adventures with Extremists
Reviewed June 21, by Jon. Ronson is a journalist and shortly after 9/11, he went on a quest to understand extremist groups on both the left and the right who thought the world was being run by a shadowy organization of leaders - Them! such as the Bilderberg group. He goes inside a KKK meeting, a Muslim extremist, the Bohemian Grove, etc. and finds lots of similarities. The groups are of people who are scared of a global elite and suppose that this global elite has ultimate power to control and manipulate the world. Not a great book, but kind of light reading and the topic is interesting.
Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them
Reviewed May 29, by Jon. The Great Divide is Stiglitz's book on income inequality. I generally like Stiglitz and agree with him. He is a more liberal economist than even Paul Krugman. The book is a collection of articles from The NY Times, Vanity Fair and a bunch of other publications - organized thematically. I have read many of them and the spacing out in time sometimes makes for confusing reading. Stiglitz is a very Keynsian economist and has very stark criticism for the banking system. He clearly characterized what happened in banking as rent-seeking. I mostly agree with him except on free-trade. He seems to be a bit anti-trade, which I believe is shortsighted. HIs prescriptions are pretty stock liberal economics. I agree with his diagnosis but not always his prescriptions. A bit tedious and repetitious at times (partially because the articles repeat stuff), but Stiglitz seems to have a generally cohesive and internally logical economic point of view.
Chicken: Stay Young Forever or Die Trying
Reviewed May 13, by Jon. Spring Chicken is an easy to read survey of aging research. It covers such characters as Aubrey De Gray and others. It does not come to any conclusions about aging except that calorie restriction - so some degree - seems to retard aging. What struck me is that there is a lot of contradictory evidence and no real conclusive theory about aging - except for the stuff we know - eat right, exercise, alcohol in moderation, keep your brain and body active. It was interesting that he referenced Buck's Center for Aging Research - which is near where we live. Spring Chicken is a well-crafted survey - but puts forth no conclusive point of view.
Old Man and the Sea
Reviewed April 30, by Jon. I was in Cuba so thought I should read a Hemingway classic. It was a great read - I read it many years ago but still a very evocative book. It is easy to picture after having spent time on the Caribbean coast of Cuba.
What's Yours: The Secret to Maxing Out Your Social Security
Reviewed April 30, by Jon. I was intriqued by the idea behind this book. Kotikoff is a well known critic of the social security system (not the system itself, but, rather our inability to ensure its solvency). This book is for individuals. Its fundamental premise is that those of us who have been working and paid into the social security system are entitled to benefits from that system. The rules are very complex so the book tries to illustrate how to maximize your lifetime benefits. One tip is to defer retirement to 70 to get the maximum payout. What struck me was how convoluted the benefits schemes are. There must be a simpler way. I am glad I read the book. I am not planning to get social security benefits for some years but at least I know there is a way to maximize benefits. Now if we could just fix that solvency problem...
Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of
Reviewed April 17, by Jon. I saw Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, speak at TED. His core message was that after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (and others that preceeded it such as the Nairobi/Dar Es Salaam embassy bombings, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole) the American defense and foreign policy establishment overreacted. The response to the actual threat was way out of proportion to the actual threat. He said that Washington, both the professional staff and politicians are way to influenced by short-term responses and incrementalism and have lost the ability to think and act long-term and creatively. I liked this message, and, thus, read the book. Unfortunately, while the book covers these issues, it is much more a chronicle of the Bush and Obama administration's foreign policy decision-making, particularly as embodied in the National Security Council. Rothkopf covers, in great detail, how both administrations made decisions. In both cases, he feels the President was naive during the first term (and had an unseasoned National Security Council) but matured by the second term. He has a pretty balanced and non-partisan view. The book does cover the issues that Rothkopf describe in his TED talk, but minimally and the prescriptions were unclear. This book was a disappointment, not because it was poorly written, but because Rothkopf admired the problem - albeit weakly, and did not provide a strong and clear prescription to address.
American: Murder and Mercy in Texas
Reviewed April 17, by Jon. I read this book after seeing the author, Anand Giridharadas, present a TED talk about it. What is remarkable is that Anand actually covered, in an 18 minute talk, the entire gist of the book. The book (and talk) is about Mark Stroman, a middle-aged loser from Dallas, Texas. Stroman fancied himself a biker and was an uneducated racist with a pretty chaotic and dysfunctional personal life. He was involved with drugs, ran with a biker crowd, and had a complex and fractured personal life. After 9/11 he decided to take vengeance against those who attacked the US. He identified them as anybody of middle eastern or southern Asian descent. He went on a shooting spree of Dallas area gas stations and convenience stores killing two (including on Indian Hindu) and wounding a third - Rais Bhuiyan, a Pakistani air force pilot who came to the U.S. to earn money to marry his fiancé back in Pakistan. Stroman is captured, tried, and sentenced to death. After the shooting, Rais decides to live up to the peaceful aspect of his Muslim teachings and forgive Stroman and tried - without success - to prevent Stroman's execution. The overall moral of the story is that the U.S. provides opportunity to immigrants who take personal responsibility for their success but we are failing to provide opportunity for those lower class US citizens born into poverty. The book is about both social context and personal responsibility. The contribution of each to success is never fully resolved - but that is how life is.
Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana
Reviewed April 8, by Jon. I read this in preparation to go on a cultural exchange to Cuba. Frank is western journalist based in Cuba. Cuban Revelations chronicles the political and economic history of Cuba from 1994 to the present. It tries to provide the flavor and texture of modern Cuba - particularly the Raul Castro regime. I feel like I have some understanding of Cuba now and will see how well the understanding from the book matches what I see by actually going there.
Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the
Reviewed March 25, by Jon. Max Boot is a military historian. His thesis is that war between large states is actually not the norm. It is an invention of the Treaty of Westphalia in the 1600s that created the modern idea of war between nation states. Boot asserts that guerilla warfare - a small group of insurgents -- fighting against a larger group is more the norm. He ranges from very ancient warfare through modern times and illustrates this thesis - including U.S. history - Revolutionary War, indian wars, Civil war - and many, many conflicts in modern times. He shows their similarity and, at the end, describes 12 key rules that define guerilla warfare. Boot's thinking correlates with much of the reading I have done. It is a long book but does make a compelling case.
The American Century Over?
Reviewed March 22, by Jon. This is a short work by Nye, the guy who defined the term soft-power. He addresses the key question by analyzing both what we meant by the American Century and whether the sources of our power are declining. The basic thesis of the book is that the US wielded a variety of hard and soft power in the twentieth century - particularly in the last half of the twentieth century. While we will have a more multi-polar world going forward, the U.S. will not necessarily lose that power. We will probably continue to wield hard power as well as economic power (although we are not in decline, others are catching up). We also have a lot of soft power in cultural and other institutions. Going forward we will share that power with the rest of the world. Nye says that we always feel we are in decline but the facts differ from that perspective. The one sobering thing he does have to say is that the disfunction of institutions such as government may limit our power and appeal to the rest of the world.
Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things
Reviewed March 14, by Jon. Rose is an entrepreneur and educator (MIT Media Lab, Tangible Media Group), who focuses on the human design aspects of the internet of things. What I liked about the book is that he provides some guidance and design principles for making connected objects "enchanted" rather than merely utilitarian. He reacts very strongly against the black glass slab interface of the iDevices to devices that have more compelling and relevant affordances. This is based on a bunch of research and entrepreneurial experience. What I did not like about the book is two things - many of the examples and devices he described are trivial examples of stuff we'd probably be better off without - e.g. a salt shaker to measure your salt consumption. Secondly, most of the book focuses on objects, not systems. Toward the end of the book, Rose does acknowledge this and points to the challenges of designing for systems and swarms. Despite the initial focus on objects, I think the book does provide good design principles and is a good contribution to the nascent dialog on design for the internet of things.
Thinking for Curious Managers: With 40 New
Reviewed February 14, by Jon. My friend, Hugh Dubberly, who is a student of Systems Thinking recommended Ackoff to me. I picked up the book thinking it would be an overview of his theories on systems thinking. It was not. Instead, it was a collection of "f-laws" - kind of nuggets that address system thinking concepts. I could discern Ackoff's theory from the "f-laws" but still want to find a book that outlines the theories more systematically - an appeal to my deductive bias.
the Grid: A Plot of Land, An Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that
Make Our World Work
Reviewed February 14, by Jon. Scott Huler starts with the lot his home sits on in Raleigh, NC and starts to figure out the infrastructure grid - surveying, water, sewage, electricity, gas, communications, transportation, and finally - how it is all financed by taxes. It is a pretty interesting book. For each type of infrastructure, he traces it from his house to its source and explains how it works. The book is well-written and informative. It takes something invisible that we take for granted and makes it tangible.
Live in the Future and Here's How it Works: Why Your World, Work, and
Brain are being Creatively Disrupted
Reviewed February 12, by Jon. Nick Bilton is a columnist for the NY Times at the intersection of media and technology. This book is a manifesto about how technology will shape media. Much of the discussion is now pretty mainstream. His fundamental premise is that technology will shape and disrupt media pretty profoundly. The old model of a patriarchal, curated set of content distributed through one to many broadcast (including print) is giving way to a more fluid many-to-many blog-sphere. Bilton chronicles the forces operating upon media but does not paint a coherent picture of what is to come. Of course, that might be my own frame of reference looking for that curated view!
Why How We Do Anything Means Everything
Reviewed January 27, by Jon. Dov Seidman is a friend of Thomas Friedman and I've seen him speak at Friedman's conferences. The basic premise of How is that in a networked world, the way we treat each other is very important. It was always important but, now, with the amount of transparency and information available, it is even more important. I agree with the basic premise of the book, but not sure the argument merits a whole book. This seems an update of Dale Carnegie's principles in How to Make Friends and Influence People - albeit without the manipulative aspects. Seidman's message is a good one, but really requires a value set (a point Seidman makes) and cannot be inculcated by method and process.
The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking
Reviewed January 11, by Jon. Cain is an introvert and the fundamental premise of her book is that while society seemingly values and puts a premium on extroverts, introversion has its benefits - among them being able to solve deeper problems. Much of the book is about the nature of introversion and introverts - much of it correlating to things I already know through executive coaching and management training. The real contribution of Cain's book is to point out that extroversion is only one style of being and it has its limits. Extroverts aren't the only types who are leaders. Introverts can make great, insightful leaders. More nuance in understanding and valuing both extroversion and introversion might make for a better society.
Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory
Reviewed January 6, by Jon. This is a difficult book to review and I have mixed feelings about it. Doughty is a twenty-something mortician, who originally started her career working as a crematorium operator and then went to mortuary school. She wants to change the way we think about death. The book is not for the queasy - she describes a lot of the gruesome things that happens to humans when they die and explains a lot of the details of creamtoria, embalming, and funeral practices. The book is funny in a way. Where it works is when she describes death and funeral practices. She also tries to weave in her life's story and philosophy - which falls a little flat. I wish she had focused on death and funerals and saved her own philosophy for a time when she had more seasoning and wisdom. There is value in the book - in that she makes, through explanation - a good case for reforming a pretty moribund (funeral home) industry and adopting a simpler and more authentic means of dealing with the dead.
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