Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Best Reads of 2014

Confession: Last year's reading year was paltry. At first I struggled to recall what happened such that I could only get through 10-12 books. Then I remembered: we had a baby in the spring (Yea!!), the summer was mostly tied up with GRE studying (Boo!!), learning Portuguese (Yea!!!) and the autumn with a Game Theory MOOC on Coursera (Yea!!!) Sadly, I did not get to much of what I intended to read for 2014. In fact, looking back on what was read I found that I strayed widely from what I intended. The war maxim "No plan survives first contact" holds in life as well.

Again, these books weren't necessarily published in 2014 but I happened to read them for the first time. They were new to me...perhaps to you as well. Happy reading in 2015.

Highly Recommend:

Only three books make the list, all three from worlds far away.

Best book I read in 2015....maybe in the last 5 years. It was originally published as a response to the Vietnam War using Gray's own experiences as a counter-intelligence agent in WWII. He attempts to explain how war affects Man and other light themes like death, courage, friendship, memory, guilt and the future possibilities of averting war. This book is philosophical but connected to experience. It takes the reader from reality to the abstract in order to draw out Gray's thoughts. Outstanding read not just for military/veterans but for anyone trying to build a more peaceful world. We are challenged to make peace more attractive than war; easier said than done.

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausaard

Amazing literary masterpiece. I've never read anything like it. Knausgaard is a Norwegian author who penned a six part magnum opus memoir about ordinary life. The book flows in and out of different memories and thought without any neatly defined transitions or endpoints. It is not simply non-linear storytelling but seemingly chaotic and perhaps random. Knowing this in advance I thought I would hate it but quite the opposite. I loved it. Knausgaard keeps it all together to delve into his childhood and young adult experiences to describe his relationships with his father, mother, and brother in astonishing private detail. Like in most of Hemingway's work the value of My Struggle is not in what happens but in how the author writes it. This isn't about global politics or grand events but about the little everyday things that make up life and his thoughts about them.

From this book originates the now ubiquitous and also overused-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness phrase "paradigm shift". A must read for all physical scientists....perhaps social scientists as well. Kuhn argues that the greatest advances in scientific understanding come not from incremental improvement in our current theories and models but from massive leaps in different directions. Researchers train using the accepted models and theories of the day. Then the focus of their professional life is application and refinement of those existing models. But, Kuhn claims that those refinements and small improvements of accepted theory pale in comparison when an entirely new model competes for preeminence and replaces it. The book focuses mostly on chemistry and physics which of course were central in technological development during and after World War II. I would be very interested to read an extension of Kuhn's argument made into biology and computer science to see if the same holds.

Solid Reads: These I found good but not necessarily noteworthy.

Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy by Moises Naim

Illicit is a very light read about all the different ways that illegal commerce takes place around the world and how technology and global networks aid both the black market and law enforcement. Naim covers human trafficking, intellectual property theft (music, movies, fashion), illegal arms shipments, money laundering, human organs and more. All particularly fascinating cases in their own right but as well, the author ties them together neatly by showing how the actors in each illegal market take advantage of advances in communications, financial markets, and global shipping to help illicit supply rise to meet illicit demand. One particularly striking claim is that the global networks are dis-aggregated and distributed. We tend to mythologize the power of the large vertically organized illegal network like the Mafia, the Cali cartel, the Yakuza, etc. Instead, most the participants in the illegal market have very weak ties to each other and are able to form/reform new networks and switch from supplying narcotics to people to bootleg copies of movies without much disruption. Illegal markets cannot be stamped out by simply capturing a few leaders of a criminal organization. People will find new (illegal) market opportunities. It seems that illicit markets function much in the same as legal markets.

Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple

This book is a narrative of the author's encounters with Britian's urban underclass which he serves as a psychiatrist. Needless to say this isn't a happy optimistic read. He recounts all the terrible incentives and decisions the underclass make. It's a manifestation of behavioral economics, institutions and people with very short time-horizons. One of the author's big targets is British social policy and how those policies enfeeble instead of empower, create dependency and destroy personal accountability. The big take-away for me was as reminder that dysfunction and societal ills plague people of all races and languages. For a shorter look at this I recommend the longform piece published in National Review last year The White Ghetto.

Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present by Max Boot

An encyclopedc tomb that covers centuries worth of irregular warfare. Political, national, ethnic and other groups of men have always challenged more powerful armies and political systems by exploiting asymmetric advantages. What I enjoyed is that Boot presents very short sketches of 60+ different irregular conflicts to disabuse the reader of any notion whatsoever that guerrilla warfa re is a new or an emergent phenomena. Weaker groups don't back down. They just find different ways to defeat their enemies than fielding large forces in set-piece battle. Boot's larger point is that irregular warfare is here to stay; woe to the major geopolitical power (ahem, USA) that fails to prepare for these types of conflicts.

Brazil: Five Centuries of Change (Latin American Histories) by Thomas E. Skidmore

A brief but excellent survey of Brazilian history. I read this while I was down in Florianopolis last summer to get a better understanding of how Brazil arrived to 2014. A very readable 250 pages. This amazing country's entire history has been marked by political instability.

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle
A little underwhelming; this was a "me-too" book by a writer that I respect tremendously. Her Atlantic and Bloomberg columns and essays are fantastic. She's got a great knack for picking up on economic subtleties in the news such that I think even Milton Friedman would be impressed. However, this book was a riff off of a well worn (but important) theme emerging from the Silicon Valley tech boom. We cannot plan and forecast everything in advance. Trying small experiments first, avoiding sunk-cost bias, having options are key to succeeding. Failure is inevitable especially when trying new things like dating, finding a career, starting a business and creating social policy. Failure is not necessarily personal moral weakness but information. Failure tells us that what we're doing isn't working. It is valuable feedback. Maybe start with her podcast interview on EconTalk before investing the money into the book. If you haven't heard this argument before then McArdle's book it definitely well worth the read.

YMMV: I thought these were exceptional books but I couldn't universally recommend them. Their appeal of these works is too narrow.

Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace: My Spiritual Journey in Opus Dei by Scott Hahn

Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church by John L. Allen

If you're Catholic or want to know more about one of the most influential forces inside the culture of the Church then I recommend John L. Allen's book on Opus Dei. It is a very even-handed critical look at where the movement came from, its purpose and how it functions. I knew nothing about Opus Dei before reading this and came away impressed. If you're hard-core Catholic then of course you'll recognize Scott Hahn and I would highly recommend his book of spirituality and Opus Dei. For non-believers or skeptics you won't get much out of Hahn's book; stick with Allen's. You'll still learn something interesting.

Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds by Christina Olds, Ed Rasimus, Robin Olds

I read this during the Air Force Chief-of-Staff's mustache March challenge as a way of learning more about my organization's history. Olds is one of the Air Force's most venerable warriors. His out-of-regulation moustache is a strong symbol of defiance to the upper echelon of senior leadership. Multiple time ace from World War II to Vietnam, a true aviator and exceptional leader, Olds is an important figure in the Air Force's history. Highly recommend to every Airmen out there.

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald

In 2013, journalist Glenn Greenwald, of the Guardian newspaper, met with Edward Snowden (NSA whisleblower or traitor, depending on your thoughts on the matter) to recieve the data and documents regarding NSA spy programs. This kicked off one of the most important events of 2013 and exposed many of the intelligence community's programs to the light of public scrutinity. This book recounts those days of meeting with Snowden, the world-wide publication of NSA secrets and Greenwald's commentary on what he found most appalling about the spy programs. I recommend this book to balance out the Fox News/conservative narrative. The power we give to our governments to keep us safe is not a left/right, liberal/conservative, hawk/dove issue. It is an issue that everyone needs to take seriously. If you're already an anti-government libertarian or anti-war progressive then this book will only confirm your prior assumptions. In that case, I'd recommend looking elsewhere.

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