BOOK REVIEWS (Alphabetical by Title)
Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw
My biggest takeaway from this book was how “history may not always repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” to paraphrase Mark Twain. The inexorable march of technological progress has consistently exerted deflationary pressure on wages and forced labor to become more educated/skilled in order to adapt. Another recurring theme that is topical to today’s world is how the capitalistic engine of the Industrial Era in the U.S. both laid the groundwork for tremendous economic growth as well as some of the social issues that go with that growth (wealth inequality, labor rights, etc). Finally, germane my own investments in commodity industries, it outlined the importance of being the lowest-cost producer when one has no control over commodity prices as was the case with Carnegie and the steel industry.
On the one hand, this “rags-to-riches” tale extols the virtues of the “American Dream” made possible by capitalism: how a poor immigrant boy from Scotland began his career as a “bobbin boy” in a cotton factory and stair-stepped his way from industry to industry, eventually becoming one of the most prominent industrialists and philanthropists of America.
On the other hand, it also paints a dark side to the fully unregulated capitalism of the day, showing how a complete lack of government protections against trusts/price-fixing led to rampant crony capitalism and a very uneven playing field, often causing violent clashes between corporations and unions.
Most interesting, however, was the fact that throughout Carnegie’s lifetime, technological innovation was the one constant that kept exerting a deflationary force on the economy. The widespread adoption of the power loom cost Carnegie’s father (a handloom weaver) his job and forced the family to emigrate to America. Throughout Carnegie’s steel career, inexorable advances in steel-making technology like the Bessemer process constantly created efficiencies that increased productivity but exerted downward pressure on wages. If this happened over 100 years ago, imagine what is happening today in a global, cloud-connected society with AI/machine learning advances every other day.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
Incredible true account of Ernest Shackleton’s doomed expedition to Antarctica in 1914 and the amazing story of grit, leadership and the will to survive against seemingly impossible odds. Very engrossing and quick read.
The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 by Jonathan Rauch
Although I’m not yet 50, I guess I’m already prepping for it! This is somewhat of a dense read, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. In short, the author cites clear statistical evidence that happiness follows a U-shaped curve, starting off high during youth when “the world is your oyster,” declining into middle-age ostensibly due to unrealistic expectations gaps as well as biological reasons, and then rounding the corner and going back into the highs thereafter – surprisingly even in infirm old-age situations. Apparently, this pattern generally holds true across geographies, ethnicities – and even in other primates. To my middle-aged friends – we all have something to look forward to!
The Man Who Solved The Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Greg Zuckerman
This was a quick, fun read but as an investor I was selfishly hoping for something a little more market-insightful, but I guess it’s not surprising to me given the iron-clad NDA’s required of all of Simons’ employees. After reading this, I don’t know whether to be inspired or depressed as a fundamental investor, because it seems like the Renaissance team has truly carved out an almost unassailable edge through the successful harnessing of complex mathematical algorithms and machine learning. I used to require my hedge fund employees to read Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefèvre, which was about a legendary speculator named Jesse Livermore (1877-1940) and his incredible ups and downs in the markets during the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, because I always said that, “Markets and technologies may change, but the two market constants are investor greed and investor fear.” While I still largely hold this thesis, this book was sobering to me in that it shows that technology can even disrupt a highly uncertain and dynamic field like investing, so as in Carnegie’s/Livermore’s era, we need to keep learning new things to adapt.
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein
I found this book to be very provocative and eye-opening in many ways. Alex Epstein, the author, very convincingly debunks a lot of myths regarding fossil fuel use and makes the case (with a lot of supporting evidence) that:
- Fossil fuel use has greatly improved human quality of life for billions.
- The Earth has been on a consistent warming trend since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution – long before significant carbon emissions could have possibly been an influence.
- Most climate models have been grossly inaccurate (i.e. not even close) in their predictions.
- Outside of nuclear, fossil fuels remain as the most efficient generator of energy for humankind.
- There is much to-do about developing battery technologies (forget about the environmental impact of this) to enable widespread use of intermittent sources of energy like wind and solar – nature has already produced the most efficient battery, and it is called the hydrocarbon.
In short, he is not arguing against global warming nor is he denying that carbon emissions contribute to global climate change; rather, he makes the case that 1) the mainstream discussion regarding whether or not to eliminate fossil fuels from our energy diet largely revolves around inadequate theories that fossil fuels are the primary determinant of climate change (as opposed to long geologic eras of climate change that are inexorable), and 2) that it is not fair to single out the shortcomings of fossil fuels without simultaneously considering the positive contributions (cheap, abundant energy for billions).
The New Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Was a bit disappointing vs. Frankopan’s first book, The Silk Roads. The first third of the book gave some interesting insights on how China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative is influencing development in the Central Asian countries (the “-stans”: Kazahkstan, Turkemistan, Kyrgyszstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Unfortunately, the next two-thirds of the book devolved into a highly partisan tirade, which is a turn-off to me in any book.
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change by Marc Morano
My intent was to get educated on this subject, because it has become such a political hot potato when it seems to me that it should be a discussion that is fact-based. This book, although partisan at times, was very revelatory on several fronts and at least gave me an overview of the main points of controversy in this debate. I believe it is an important topic that affects everyone on Planet Earth and that there are extremists on both sides of the argument that obfuscate the issues in the name of politics and policy objectives. At the minimum, it has led me to purchase several more books on the topic and led me to create a chat group on WhatsApp to discuss this topic intelligently. Please feel free to join if you are interested: https://chat.whatsapp.com/DT2bQrLyb5AJxhZuN2I8EI
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
Continuing down this theme of the importance of geography, I found this gem of a book which takes you around the globe and frames age-old conflicts and modern geopolitics in geographical terms. Fascinating to see how geography plays a huge role in a lot of current world conflicts like Russia/Ukraine, India/Pakistan, the instability in the Middle East, etc.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
I read this earlier this summer en route to the heart of Turkey for our family summer trip. I generally like to read something topical to where we visit, and this was a phenomenal book about the importance of geography. Of particular interest to me (due to my trip) was how and why Constantinople held such an important role in world history due to its geographic position straddling Europe and Asia.
The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State by Elizabeth Economy
I thought this was a very, no-nonsense depiction of Xi Jinping’s rise to power, how his worldview was heavily influenced by Mao vs. Deng and explains why perhaps there is rare bi-partisan support for trade policies that stand up to China – when the “carrot” strategy doesn’t work, sometimes you have to use the “stick.” Fascinating to see the motivations behind China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative as well as some of the consequences.
AUDIOBOOK & PODCAST REVIEWS (Alphabetical by Title)
The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown
This was more like a 6-7 hour podcast interview than a traditional audiobook, but it was a very effective format for the content. I’ve always liked to read self-help books, but now that I’m discovering this medium, I find that listening to the actual author convey his/her message may even be more effective – at least for this genre. There are a lot of great nuggets of wisdom in this book about how to be present, but I had one powerful takeaway from this book: when confronted with demands that may not work for your present circumstances, it’s more important to be authentic and uncomfortable in saying “no” than it is to say “yes” inauthentically and harbor resentment. Lots of wisdom in that, in my opinion.
Stillness Speaks by Eckhart Tolle
I’ve read several of Tolle’s books, including The Power of Now and A New Earth. Stillness Speaks covers roughly the same topics about how to find presence in stillness as well as learning to recognize one’s attachment to ego. Honestly, none of this material would have resonated with me even 5 years ago, but in 2016 I attended a life-changing retreat in Napa Valley called “The Hoffman Process” which introduced to me the practice of being present as well as recognizing that we are not our patterns. Since then, I’ve come to realize that almost all of these books and seminars basically share the same essence – just with different vocabulary and perspectives.
A New Earth (Podcast) by Eckhart Tolle & Oprah Winfrey
Eckhart Tolle to me is one of the best authors on the subject, and I highly recommend his podcast with Oprah Winfrey on his other book:
TV SHOW REVIEWS (Alphabetical by Title)
Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates on Netflix
I thought this 3-part series was great despite the mixed reviews it got. I would’ve liked to see a bit more coverage on his Microsoft years, but overall, it did a decent job of introducing the audience to Bill’s childhood influences as well as showing how his focus has evolved from aggressively competing for world domination to aggressively pursuing big philanthropic initiatives through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
MOVIE REVIEWS (Alphabetical by Title)
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker directed by J.J. Abrams
The Force Is With This One
Not only are the holidays upon us, Star Wars season is once again here as well. I officially submit my review of Star Wars, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker for your perusal.
As a long-time Star Wars fan, I had great hopes when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. Seeing what they did with the Marvel franchise, I naturally extrapolated similar success to what they might do with the Star Wars franchise, supercharged with the might and muscle of Disney behind it.
When the greatly anticipated Episode VII: The Force Awakens came out in 2015, while I was disappointed by the fact that the story arc resembled the original Episode IV: A New Hope very closely, I was still entertained because the director, J.J. Abrams, introduced some intriguiing new characters and plot elements that invited speculation (something the Star Wars fan community loves to do).
Along came Rogue One in 2016, the prequel to Episode IV: A New Hope. I loved this movie and was lucky enough to attend the red carpet premiere, replete with a full-scale X-Wing fighter on Hollywood Blvd -- the fanboy in me was in heaven! I remember thinking to myself that George Lucas made a huge mistake selling too cheaply and that Disney would usher in a new Star Wars Golden Age. So far so good!
Then came Episode VIII: The Last Jedi in 2017 – and my Star Wars dreams imploded faster than Death Star 2 over Endor. Inexplicably, the director Rian Johnson, systematically shut every plot door that J.J. Abrams opened in the The Force Awakens and simultaneously discarded every bit of fan-revered “canon” in one fell swoop. It’s as if he systematically hunted down and destroyed everything fans loved about Star Wars, a la “Order 66”! Honestly, forget about it being the worst Star Wars movie by far, it might’ve been one of the all-time worst movies I’ve ever seen in any genre, and Rian Johnson deservedly earrned his own entry in the Urban Dictionary as a result: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Rian%20Johnson. I could just picture George Lucas LOL’ing, knowing that forlorn fans like me would beg him to come back at any price – even with Jar Jar Binks in tow!
Meanwhile, as you can see below, the “official” critics gave it a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – Jedi mind trick by Disney? Fans like me crushed it with a 43%, which I thought was generous (I would have rated it 1 out of 10).
So when a neighbor invited me to the “Friends & Family Pre-Showing” of Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker at the El Capitan on December 16th, you can imagine my level of indifference. For the first time in the history of Star Wars films, I had seriously considered waiting for this one to hit Blu-Ray before seeing it, but since it was free, I figured “why not”?
Imagine my surprise when halfway through the movie, I’m not only not hating the characters any more, but I’m actually enjoying the movie! J.J. Abrams now has my undying respect as a Jedi Master for levitating this wreck out of the swamp – not only did he fix all of the issues that Rian Johnson created, he managed to do so in a way that almost allows you to think that some of the gaping plot holes in The Last Jedi were done on purpose. Almost. There were still a couple moments that made me cringe (watch it and you’ll know what I’m talking about), but not enough to keep me from seeing it a second time this weekend with my family. After Round 2, I actually liked it even more and would actually assign an 8 out of 10 for this one – I even rank it slightly ahead of Rogue One, and that’s saying a lot.
Note, however, how wrong again the “critic consensus” is. If you’ve been reading my Kaoboy Musings, you know how much I value contrarian thinking. Let this be no exception. Don’t trust the critics – go see The Rise of Skywalker. J.J. is a Jedi Master, and this is the finale you’ve been looking for!
May The Force Be With You, and Happy Holidays!
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