Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What I Read in 2015

It's clear from this list that 2015 was about War, Violence, and Power. I didn't intend it that way. In fact the goal for the year was to read more fiction and great literature. The last few years were heavy on public policy and economics to the point that I felt like I was reading the same book over and over again. For 2015, I really wanted to branch out which happened but not in the intended way. Perhaps the lesson is not to try and predict 2016's destination but just see where the year takes me.

The entries are categorized simply by "Best of", which I can almost universally recommend, and "YMMV", your mileage may vary. "YMMV" does not imply bad just not for everyone.

Same rubric as before, books on this list were not necessarily published this year but read for the first time in 2015.

Best of 2015

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War-Karl Marlanates
I had intended to read Marlantes' What It's Like To Go To War as a follow-on to reading The Warriors last year. But, I decided to go with his novel instead of the non-fiction work which I'll get to this year, hopefully. Excellent story that was 30+ years in the making. Follows a Marine infantry company over a couple eventful months in Vietnam. The story mainly focuses on Lt Mellas, brand-new platoon commander, but also goes back and forth with his peers, the grunts and the leadership. Captures the stomach-turning horror, the loss, the fear, the politics and the senselessness of combat. Can't recommend it enough.

War From The Ground Up-Emile Simpson
A short but dense non-fiction book about national strategy. This book is profound and captures many elements of strategy that I had never considered before. Simpson extends Clausewitz's thinking to argue why the West has mostly failed to achieve its national security objectives in non-traditional conflicts. 21st century war, claims Simpson, does not typically meet the two Clausewitzian conditions whereby state actors in conflict line up on opposite sides (polarity) and each are the object of war's outcome (contained strategic audiences). When these conditions are met then war determines a decisive outcome and all of Clausewitz's logic follows. When these conditions are not met, and throughout history rarely are met, then nation-state war is not the locus that decides the outcome.    

La Fiesta del Chivo-Mario Vargas Llosa
Mario Vargas Llosa is rapidly becoming my favorite author. The story follows multiple characters in the Dominican Republic during the last days of the Trujillo era, including the dictator himself. It is extremely sad and depressing at times to witness the corruption and debasement of men and women addicted to and dependent on absolute power. The novel rotates through the stories of Urania, a woman who returns to the island to reconcile her father's lack of integrity which caused her to flee her home, the dictator, Trujillo, and four young Dominicans who assassinate him. I read this in Spanish so I can't make any claims about English translation but it's probably worth a try.

Tao Te Ching-Lao Tzu
This book is great on many levels. It's a wonderful primer to an important Eastern religion that is superficially more easily understood than Buddhism or Hinduism. On another level it is useful in helping the mind transcend cause-effect simplicity and see the world as a system of system where causality does not run in one direction nor from one source. The introduction to this edition is brilliant. 

Anne of Green Gables-L.M. Montgomery
I read this to my oldest daughter at night. Even though she's a voracious reader herself its fun to explore the classics of youth together. This was a true joy to read for the story and also for the way the author challenges the reader through her masterful command of the English language. The prose, the turn of phrase, the oh-so perfect words made me realize that I had not read anything comparable in a long time. Besides, who can't cheer for red-headed orphans?

Three Day Road-Joseph Boyden
Two Cree men join the Canadian Army during World War I. The story begins with one of them returning from Europe to his aunt, physically and spiritually broken. The book tells the woman's story of her Cree life in the bush and the two young men's brutal experience in war. Beautifully written and truly heartbreaking. Reminded me to think about the men and women returning from war. Not all scars are visible or physical. 

Back To Blood-Tom Wolfe
I forgot to add this when I first published this post. This was a highly entertaining novel not in the least because I'm currently living in Miami where the story is set. Tom captures the decadence of Miami and also the moral decay of the US by offering up a Cuban-American police officer, Hector, as an unlikely hero and man of moral rectitude. Miami, Hector's family, friends and the object of his love all turn their backs on him as payment for his selfless acts. For more background, Tom Wolfe was interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute in 2013 about Back To Blood. 


City of God-Paulo Lins
Took this with me to Brasilia in April. Not a great work of literature but there is plenty to recommend it. The sheer number of characters, all of whom have names and nicknames, are bewildering. It was incredibly difficult to keep up with the story but that, I believe, is intentional. The culture and environment described in the novel is so pervasive and poisionous that it infects and corrupts generations and engulfs entire Rio neighborhoods. The names and people change over time but the violence and hopelessness persist. City of God felt like an extended version of Lord of the Flies. The children, berefit of any adult supervision, regress even further into anarchy and power struggles. The cycle of violence repeats itself infinitely. The characters with power eventually lose it and are killed. I found this passage particularly striking;

"He believed everyone there was afraid of him, because he's always been mean--that was the best way a gangster could be respected. For Tiny, there was no peace or remorse, he never did anything he couldn't get something out of later, and he rubbed every good deed in the face of the person he'd done it for, because he suffererd when it wasn't returned, thus destroying everying that didn't feature in his cruel understanding of the world, of life, of relationships. He had the ability to bring out violence in anyone and multiply it at will. He talked to himself in the corners of the living room, the bedroon, in prision and at liberty, and anything he perceived as aggression toward him was returned in the guise of death. He was lord of his own disillusion, and it was his evil fate to be unable to forgive, to annihilate everything his villainous mind was unable to grasp, to invent what others hadn't done to justify his own cruelty. He was vermin born under the sign of Gemini."

Racing the Rain-John L. Parker, Jr.
If you competed in high school cross-country and track and read the first novel, Once A Runner, then you'll find quite a gem waiting for you. John L. Parker completes the trilogy of Quenton Cassidy with the prequel to Once A Runner. Aside from the sorrowful truth about what it takes to obtain greatness in running there's a meta-lesson that Parker weaves into the three novels that I didn't catch until Racing the Rain. People with dreams and lofty goals are guaranteed to encounter small people who will attempt to hinder and obstruct. Not only does the dreamer have to deal with the enormity of the task they've chosen but also with naysayers and hostile gate-keepers. Cassidy sees this throughout his life, from childhood to adult Olympian. With luck, the dreamer will find mentors and guides to help them navigate these challenges but sometimes even their interventions are not enough.

The Analects-Confucius
More proscriptive wisdom and ethics than deep philosophy but I found it useful nonetheless. It does contain many nuggets about how to conduct one's affairs and responsibilities in life. While it lacked the soaring transcendentalism of the Tao, on a personal level it is far more pragmatic and useful. One cannot eat unicorns and rainbows but one can learn to exercise better judgement and be magnanimous.

No Hero-Mark Owen
Written by the author of "No Easy Day", the first account of the Bin Laden raid, this book is pure SEAL porn. I don't have any better way to describe it. "No Hero" is one book in a long line of books about the community that have emerged in the last five years. Great stories about being a Navy SEAL on the most elite team in the world. Each chapter is a story with some lesson learned about how to work better as a team or how to think about conducting missions or taking on life's challenges. Very little of it did I remember but it was entertaining without a doubt.

Why We Lost: A General's Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars-Dan Bolger
I'm searching for the definitive account of the Iraq war and was hoping that this was it. It wasn't. While the book certainly served its purpose I wanted less of the tactical level stories and more of the 30,000 foot perspective. Bolger does a great job of weaving in the ground level narrative to illustrate his point about how we bungled the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. His blame falls to the general officer corps who have been educated at the finest military schools in the world but failed, over and over, to grasp what was going on around them.

Letters From A Stoic-Seneca
Brilliant wisdom from 2000 years ago. This is a collection of letters written by Seneca which illustrate the ethics of Stoicism. This reminded me of Augustine's Confessions in the sense that it felt timeless and could have been written today. The personal struggles and best advice about how to conduct oneself in the world doesn't change even though we are told everyday that somehow the world is different and that our approach needs to be different. Facebook, airplanes, eradication of diseases, iPhones, etc. will not fundamentally alter what we are as humans or the emotions we will experience; loneliness, disappointment, excitement, joy.

Influence-Robert Chaldini
Published in 2001, "Influence" is one of the older books in the management genre that employs social science to make its point. However, I think it is still important and has held the test of time. It definitely feels like a precursor to Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" although more practical and less theoretical.

Chaldini describes the six "Weapons of Influence". These are tools which people use, knowingly or unknowingly, to gain compliance from others. These techniques draw out automatic responses from the target that creates an artificial conflict inside the person making them want to comply in order not to violate other norms. The tools prey on the errors that our automatic, shortcut, heuristic processes make in order to get us to do stuff against our own best interest. The power in these weapons lies in the fact that we are already surrounded and influenced by them always. They hardly seem noticible when the profiteer uses them. The profiteer does not have to invent a new method or use violence but simply harness the power already being used to influence us into compliance.

Information overload and increased cognitive demands of the modern world cause us to rely even more heavily on heuristics and thinking shortcuts. We do not have the mental space/capacity to make lots of thoughtful decisions. The daily distractions of life leave us without the proper conditions for making good decisions. The shortcuts we use to make decisions; commitment, reciprocity, liking, social proof are increasingly subject to manipulation. I'd recommend the book to help understand how our decisions are being influenced.

Nobody Understands You (And What To Do About It)-Heidi Grant Halvorson
Why don't people see you the way you see yourself? Assuming that you're not delusional about who you are, it is intriguing when a perception gap appears. Where does that come from? A guy who believes that he is trying to help the team is dumbfounded to discover that others think of him as a jerk. This gap stems from two things; a lack of exposure and cognitive shortcuts. Given enough time with a person the perception and reality gap will close. The problem is that we don't always get to spend lots of time with our bosses, peers and subordinates so gaps can persist. The cognitive shortcuts that Halvorson describes are lenses by which we see other people; trust, power and ego. Understanding how others see you through that sense is the key to closing the gap.

As an aside, I've been impressed with Halvorson's work. She wrote a great Harvard Business Review article "Nine Things Successful People Do Differently" that I found original and insightful. It wasn't a re-tread of all the other noise that gets published.


Social and Economic Networks-Matthew O. Jackson 
Great textbook to introduce the limited knowledge we have about social and economic networks. Its the companion to the Coursera MOOC by Stanford "Social and Economic Networks: Models and Analysis". Excellent course but the book is math heavy so I wouldn't recommend it unless you're either a doctoral student or going to take the MOOC. This method of analysis has not been exploited to the extent that it could be to serve the study of economics. Multivariate regression analysis only goes so far. Most of the low-hanging fruit have been picked off that tree.


Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future-Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
Say what you want about Peter Thiel but without a doubt he challenges conventional wisdom. There's a micro and macro element to the book. There are advice and thoughtful questions for would-be entrepreneurs but also policy discussion. Thiel gives his thoughts as to how the US can cultivate the right conditions to foster innovation and create companies that produce new things that will make our lives truly better. Despite the technological advances in the last two decades, principally in computing and on the internet, Thiel sees stagnation in almost every other sector of the economy.

The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age-Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh
A classic case of a 20 page paper getting extended into a book length publication. Thankfully, the book isn't egregiously long but it does have some interesting ideas about how to think about employer-employee relationships. Given the near certainty that employees will not be with one company for their entire career how do you invest in them, build trust and get them to adopt the company's interests as their own. The LinkedIn team suggests constructing something like a military tour-of-duty where the company agrees to teach the employee a new skill or let them work on a project that will expand their human capital in exchange for medium term commitment to the company, say 2-5 years. When that tour is up a new tour can be negotiated or ways can be parted amicably knowing that each got something important out of the relationship.

Asia's Cauldron: The South China Sea and The End of a Stable Pacific-Robert Kaplan
The security situation in the Pacific was mostly unclear to me other than the fact that China needed resources to continue its economic growth. My focus is on Latin America so I readily admit that I don't understand the nuances of China, Russia, Ukraine, Middle East, etc. Jim Stavridis, retired Navy Admiral and current dean of the Fletcher school, recommended this book and it did not disappoint. If you're interested in how the South China Sea become a Gordian knot such that enemies (Vietnam) and frenemies (Philippines, Indonesia) of the United States suddenly cannot get enough port calls from US Navy vessels then read this.

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