Here’s his second act:
Other good books that I read this year and highly recommend, grouped in subject matter:
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
This is not a flattering picture of the investment banks. It tells the story of the 2008 financial crisis, where unfettered superstar traders attempted to profit from the rational exuberance from the housing market bubble by wagering huge mysterious derivative bets against their own economy.
Pretty much nobody understood what was in these derivatives, but they still went ahead and traded them. In much of America you can go to jail for robbing a bank, but in the book we learn that if you robbed a bank whilst working on a derivatives desk on Wall Street, you might actually get a multimillion dollar golden parachute for your troubles. I read this in January of 2013, and in February 2013 I quit my job as a banker.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
The audiobook of this is excellent. Lowe is engaging, charming and funny. We learn about feral teenage life in California in the 1960s and 1970s, his involvement with the brat pack, some epic stories about his time working with Chris Penn, Tom Cruise and the Swayze, his impressive list of ex girlfriends, his fall into alcohol abuse and eventual resurrection via The West Wing.
Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography by Mike Tyson
Who wouldn’t want to know about how Mike Tyson managed to blow $300m on drugs, women, lawsuits and Versace? It’s a cautionary Pygmalion tale of success, excess and abuse. In a drug rehab test, Tyson was asked to name three basic needs and answered “sex, food and water in that order.” He forgot to mention air.
Towards the end of the book, we see Mike reach an epiphany. He learns not to blame things on society; that no trophy belt or glory is more important than life and the people you love. But he does admit that “just to have one year of living Mike Tyson, the champ’s life, I would be a bum sucking rat piss in the gutter”. The man has a way with words.
Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson
I would have written a summary on this, but I think that everyone knows the premise. Excellent must-read.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano - This is both one of the most depressing and one of the most inspiring books I have read. It’s the autobiography of Equiano, who was kidnapped into slavery from Nigeria and eventually became a face of the abolitionist cause in Britain. We learn of Equiano’s brutal treatment as a slave, his relationships with, and betrayals by, various masters, his guile and skill in languages and seafaring, and the importance of his conversion to Christianity which stopped him from killing himself.
This is an invaluable look into the desperate life of slaves in the second half of the Eighteenth Century as well as a study of a man whose patience, humanity, morality and faith helped him to rise above adversity.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela - It all seems very black and white (b-dum) now, but back in the 70s and 80s the baddies really were in charge in South Africa. The world was a crazy place; Madiba was labeled a terrorist by the UK and US; during his imprisonment, his son died and he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral; and it turns out that the lung infection which eventually killed him was caused by the dampness in his cell. Madiba’s journey is a lesson in morality, self-belief, dignity and optimism.
Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Dufio – A totally novel way at looking at solving poverty issues from the point of view of the poor. I really like the bottom up approach to solving poverty amongst the poorest. The book addresses why women don’t take their children for free immunizations in India and why free mosquito nets are turned into wedding veils in Africa.
Much of the problems of the poor involve culture (people will trust a local witch doctor over a qualified doctor), education (learning about the vectors of disease) and ownership (the poor will appreciate solutions to their problems more if they have to pay for them and become stakeholders in their improvement).
American Mania: When More is Not Enough by Peter Whybrow
I am really interested in the workings of the human brain and in particular the reptilian part of the brain ruled by the amygdala. Whybrow explores why despite being the most affluent people on the planet, Americans are so dissatisfied with their lives. Whybrow’s belief is that the reward system within the reptilian brain (the prehistoric part of the human brain) has become hijacked by superabundance – the fact that stimulation (food, entertainment, sex, alcohol) has become so accessible.
He believes that Americans are more susceptible to this abundance-linked mania because they are descended from brave risk taking immigrants with a higher frequency of the novelty seeking D4-7 allele. The book is a little preachy advising us to check out of the rat race, but is a very interesting look into why Americans are so inventive, affluent and depressed.
How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed by Ray Kurzweil
Scientist and inventor, Kurzweil is the Moses of the futurist movement and is famous for his book on the Singularity (a time when man and microchip eventually merge). This book is quite heavy for someone who isn’t a neuroscientist, but highly enjoyable. Kurzweil explains the importance of the old primitive brain as an evaluator of danger (fight or flight), as well as the neocortex (new brain) which gives us creativity, language, conscious thought and reasoning.
He believes that a synthetic neocortex can be created in a computer where it learns like a human but can process and absorb information faster and eventually outthink a human brain. Deep Blue beating Kasparov or Watson beating the Jeopardy champion is just the start. Kurzweil believes that in the coming thirty years, those who refuse to embrace this technology by merging with it, will be left behind.