Books Read in the Second Half of 2013

My reviews of books read during my first year in Chicago was my most popular post yet (as measured by email responses from friends). So I’ve decided to make it a semi-annual tradition.

Once again, the books are sorted from worst-to-best on a one-to-five scale, with my highest rated book given special recognition at the end.

Note: The books marked with an asterisk are ones I read in the previous time period but forgot to include in the last post because they were e-books.

Two Stars:

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg: Yes, we get that you were able to attend Harvard and were lucky enough to work for Larry Summers *and* your husband also runs a multi-hundred million dollar business. And I don’t hold any of that against Sandberg personally, but the book reads as, “Let me show you what my life, as a successful woman, is like,” instead of, “Here is how any woman can achieve her goals.” Any lessons for women are reworded cliches with “Lean In” being a 21st century brush up of “Speak Up More” which teachers have been telling the shy kid in class for decades. Men will get the most out of it. It’s a good reminder of our cognitive biases and weaknesses when dealing with women. You can get the same effect from older feminist writings.

The Games That Changed the Game by Ron Jaworski: I only give this a two star rating because its for a very specific niche and I don’t feel it even nails its topic. Jaworski’s book is, like his ESPN commentary, a breakdown of the game film from the seven most influential games in NFL history (in his opinion). Even if you’re a football junkie, you will question his choices for the first and last chapter (a Sid Gilman game all about the rushing attack and the 2001 Patriots-Rams Super Bowl focusing on defending Marshall Faulk). I did enjoy the exclusive interviews with players from these games across many generations and Jaworski’s individual play analysis, it’s only a portion of a book aimed for diehard football fans.

Three Stars:

*The Return of the Great Depression by Theodore “Vox Day” Beale: Beale is an economic crank, but that doesn’t mean he’s without good points (as tends to be the case with cranks). His most convincing chapters debunk a Paul Krugman article nearly line-by-line and establish how the Federal Reserve has failed to reduce bank failures and financial crises. He hurts his Austrian arguments with his poorly thought out sexist policy recommendations and over-referencing of the inaccurate ShadowStats site.

Catching The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort: Considering I had read the first book sophomore year of college (I suspect I was one of the few students in 2010 who did) and the Scorcese movie was being released, I felt it appropriate to read the sequel. Belfort maintained the outrageous writing, both in style and substance, that was present in the first book and displayed in the movie. It’s not a book about finance, it’s about one man’s descent into madness in some of the most destructive, off-the-charts ways possible, and the FBI’s attempts to pin him.

Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins: In this memoir, Perkins explains his life as an “Economic Hitman”, a consultant hired by governments and corporations to convince third-world nations to borrow money from the first-world at indenturing terms. Given the premise, I was hoping for a real expose. Sadly, Perkins is light both on technical economic details and gritty drama. This does leave the book as a quick, thin read. It pairs well with Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” which I previously reviewed.

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay: I’d been hearing from friends and media outlets alike that this book was a must-read for young adults in my generation (whatever that means). Given the attention the book got upon release and Dr. Jay’s credentials, I was expecting something more substantive. Defining Decade still contains useful, relatable anecdotes for those in their 20s who are searching for happiness and meaning. I’m just disappointed most of the science was absent.

Four Stars:

*The Launchpad: Inside Y Combinator by Randall Stross: New York Times journalist Stross was able to get exclusive access to the inner workings of Y Combinator, the revolutionary startup investment firm, as it led one of its famed startup “batches” through a summer. The book is a quick read as Stross jumps through the all the startup stages in his three months in Mountain View. It’s length is a great strength, as every page brings the wisdom of Paul Graham and company to readers considering starting a company of their own.

*Effective Programming: More Than Writing Code by Jeff Atwood: A collection of essays by the creator of the Coding Horror, Atwood covers a wide breadth of technology topics including software testing, programmer hiring, project management, and application security. Given his years of enterprise experience, co-founding Stack Overflow, and still maintaining his popular blog, every essay in this book is worth digesting and re-reading.

Without Their Permission by Alexis Ohanian: Written by the cofounder of Reddit, Without Their Permission is a half biography/half pep talk about the origins of Reddit and the modern internet ecosystem. Alexis writes with a sense of humor, a clear understanding of how lucky he is, and explains the work he put in to be in that position. While anyone who is familiar with Reddit’s history will find the first half a bit redundant (or anyone familiar with SOPA will feel the same way about the second half), Without Their Permission covers enough varied material that any reader will get something new out of it while enjoying Alexis’s storytelling.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford: This introduction to economic thinking meanders aimlessly from topic to topic, but doesn’t feel aimless. Despite not providing much depth for those with a pre-existing background in economics and seemingly disorganized chapter structure, I would recommend this book as a primer on practical applications of economics to those unfamiliar with the field.

The Smart Swarm by Peter Miller: This high level explanation of the research into animal group behaviors is readable, understandable, and educational. Miller accomplishes the tough task of simplifying complex flocking and biomimicry research, presenting its real-world applications, and keeping a steady pace for the casual reader.

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Taleb: It seems kind of narcissistic to write a collection of your own one-liners and publish it. Since most people aren’t as insightful as Taleb, he gets away with it. It’s cheap, takes an hour to read, and the most wisdom you can get in that time for that price.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis: Lewis’s second sports work after Moneyball and a popular movie starring Sandra Bullock, he continues to tell the stories of unsung heroes with outsized impact on their fields (in this case, a literal one). What the movie left out of Lewis’s book is the entire half dedicated to explaining why Michael Oher’s position at left tackle became so valuable in the NFL. The Blind Side reminds one that everyone has potential, especially those with the most unappreciated skills in the most overlooked places.

Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen: Cowen, one of my favorite economists and author of “The Great Stagnation”, presents his latest thesis: The future of the American economy is a class divide driven by an individual’s aptitude for complementing computers. Programmers and those with fantastic soft skills which are difficult to quantify will be at the top of the income scale, leaving everyone else competing for minimum wage service work. The book meanders while making its point in the middle chapter and goes increasingly off-topic. It is saved by the final chapter “The New Social Contract” which takes his thesis to its practical societal conclusions. Cowen has said he hopes it reads like a history book of the future and I hope more social scientists attempt this presentation style.

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh: Recommended by Twitter creator Jack Dorsey as his manual for leadership, this posthumously published guidebook lays bare the thoughts of a football legend. Walsh led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowls and two more under his self-appointed successor during the 80s and early 90s. His core philosophy of teaching his employees/players to rise to his “Standard of Performance” can transfer into any workplace. Although the book is just a tad repetitive, the central thesis mixed with Walsh’s personal stories from coaching one of the NFL’s greatest and longest dynasties makes it recommended reading.

Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis by James Rickards: The book for understanding how currencies work and the dangers of mismanaging them on a global scale. The book is split into two parts: First, a history of the past 100 years of fiat currencies; Second, Rickards’s projections on the future of international monetary policy. These discussions are centered around the concern that countries are increasingly using currency manipulation as economic warfare. This should be read by everyone in a position of political and economic power who decides these very issues.

Five Stars:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Lowell Bair: The 2002 Kevin Reynolds film rendition of this classic is one of my favorite movies. I was concerned that seeing the movie first would spoil my view of the book. Luckily, major plot lines are significantly different enough to keep the two separate in my mind. Monte Cristo is the definitive revenge story. I am not surprised it has survived for centuries.

*Bubble Logic: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Bull by Cliff Asness: Billionaire founder of AQR Capital Management wrote this unpublished-book-turned-long-academic-paper in August 2000 as the dot-com bubble was crashing. Asness eviscerates the Internet bulls using simple financial mathematics. As someone who is a believer in the potential of internet companies, Asness provides the logical, sobering truth to the Silicon Valley-ites who misunderstand market realities. A must-read for value investors or anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the stock market.

Fate of the States by Meredith Whitney: I’ve already written another blog post based on the information in this book. Whitney and her research team have compiled damning evidence on the widespread mismanagement of state and municipal governments on both coasts of this country. While her calls against these municipalities might be criticized for early timing, her broader points can not and should not be ignored by politicians and the broader citizenry.

Best Book Read in the Second Half of 2013:

Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by David Einhorn: While Fate of the States, my runner-up for this position, is an easier and more relevant read for most, Fooling All of the People was too memorable to not have the top spot. Hedge fund manager Einhorn documents his multi-year fight against the fraudulent Allied Capital. Einhorn clearly walks through how white-collar criminals, Wall Street banks, Harvard professors, government agencies, and shady accountants conspired to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers and individual investors. Compared to writings about the 2008 financial crisis, Fooling All of the People is a personal tale of a small group of individuals investigating the very corrupt corporate systems that preceded the crisis and have really existed throughout history. This is a book that will leave you a less naive person. That feeling alone is worth the price of the paperback.