Book Review: “American Oligarchs” by Andrea Bernstein

(I have read a lot of books this year.)

There is a lot inside American Oligarchs that has been mentioned in other places before, but this is a nice compendium documenting the pervasive lies and corruption that exist at every level within the Trump and Kushner companies, organizations, and families (which are all one and the same, really) and a lot irony. Sweet, sweet irony.

The story of the Trump family proves that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. DJT’s grandfather, Frederick, left Germany at an early age and avoiding the mandatory service (!!) with the Bavarian army (this would later cause him to lose his citizenship). He settled down in the Pacific Northwest and owned a number of hotels and restaurants during the Klondike Gold Rush, some of which were allegedly involved of illicit activities of various sorts. He died in 1918 due to complications with the Spanish flu.

The story of the Kushners is interesting and tragic. Jared Kushner’s grandparents and extended family were rounded up by Nazis during World War II. Some members were murdered, and others sent to concentration camps where they eventually made a daring escape. After the war, Jared’s grandparents were displaced people without a home. Few countries wanted to take Jewish refugees, especially those lacking proper documentation.

In more recent times, both families have displayed fairly dubious business skills, while projecting an air of confidence (but come across as desperate for acceptance and recognition). Cross them the wrong way and they will hold grudges for life.

Despite this, they have somehow always managed to fail upward. Sadly, this now has some pretty drastic consequences for our democracy.

If you didn’t want to eat the rich before this book, you’ll feel like you’re ready for a five-course meal of cooked oligarch once you’ve finished. We have some serious issues to fix and we should start by locking all of these fine folks up.

I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.

Book Review: “The Wax Pack” by Brad Balukjian

The premise: a baseball fan fondly recalls his childhood memories of obsessively opening and collecting packs of baseball cards.

While watching an A’s game one afternoon at the Coliseum (which he rightly describes as a “post-apocalyptic crater ringed with hot dog stands”), he wonders what the players featured on the cards he collected as a kid were doing with their lives after their baseball careers had ended.

After purchasing a pack of cards on eBay from 1986, (the first year the author remembers having baseball cards), he sets off on a road trip across America to find and hopefully meet the 14 players featured in this 30-year-old card pack.

High jinks, hilarity and even important life lessons ensue.

This was just a great read and I highly recommend it for any baseball fan. Check it out on Goodreads.

Book Review: “Talking to Strangers” by Malcom Gladwell

Talking to Strangers” examines how our internal and cultural biases affect our interactions and perceptions of the people around us.

Early in the book, Gladwell mentions a study that gets right to the heart of the book and was really eye opening for me.

It’s a study into the “illusion of asymmetric insight” and shows us how we think we’re good an interpreting what a stranger is thinking or their intentions (spoiler: we’re actually really horrible at it).

Participants were required to complete a set of words with missing letters and then asked what the results say about them.

For example, someone was given “TOU _ _”. Some people would fill in the blanks as “TOUGH” and others would put “TOUCH”.

Afterward, the participant was asked if they think these results reflect their beliefs and core values. Nearly every participant said their word choices were random and had no relation on how they view the world.

Then they were given a random set of words from other people and asked the same question: What do you think these word choices say about these strangers?

Everyone had a strong opinion within literally minutes of being asked the same question about themselves! “Whoever wrote these sounds pretty vain“, or “this person sounds very obsessed with money and power.

Crazy, right?

The book is full of studies like this, as well as specific examples from real life interactions like this (some with very tragic consequences) and takes a deeper look into why things might have played out the way they did — from a traffic stop in Texas that went very wrong, broken diplomatic promises before World War II, a high-profile sexual assault that occurred at Stanford, and even looking into the motivations of people who try to commit suicide and our collective misunderstanding as to why and where these things happen.

I went into this book not knowing exactly what it was about. I thought, “Oh! New Malcom Gladwell book and it seems to be getting some good reviews, let’s go for it”. It took around a chapter or two for me to really get into the book and see where it was going, but when things finally clicked for me, this was fascinating and enlightening look at every day interactions.

Book Review: “You Look Like a Thing and I Love You” by Janelle Shane

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You is a great, quick read for anyone who is even remotely curious about what things like AI, machine learning or neural networks actually mean and how it affects your day-to-day life.

Whether it’s facial recognition, to self-driving cars, to the search results you get from Google, this book describes the different types of machine learning algorithms, often in a humorous way (the first few pages deal with the author trying to generate pick-up lines using a neural network — hence the title of this book).

It’s a quick read and dives into some of the limitations that machine learning algorithms are bound by and how machine learning algorithms can be tricked, return results outside the parameters of a problem, or even cheat (e.g., when one AI agent was given an objective to minimize the number of times a character died in a video game, it found out how to simply pause the game).

One particular section of the book talks about the recently released GPT-2 data model by OpenAI, which can be used to generate fairly intelligent and coherent sounding blocks of text. It prompted me to try and run the model on my own machine.

After giving the model a prompt of “machine learning can be scary,” the computer responded with the following block of text:

“The problem is, it’s easy to forget that we can’t avoid the problem with software. It’s often hard to avoid the problem, but knowing how to avoid it is not the same as knowing how to avoid it. The problem is, the problem is easy to avoid, but the problem is hard to avoid.”

Do we need to worry about robot overlords any time soon? Probably not.

This is a book that I’d recommend to both people who are tech savvy and to parents who might still call you with questions on how to turn on a computer… or at least anyone curious to how machine learning affects various aspects of our lives.

Book Review: City of Thieves

Historical fiction and World War II are two subjects that I love reading about. Even better when they’re combined, in my opinion. I just finished City of Thieves by David Benioff and it’s one of my favorite books that I’ve read in awhile.

It follows the antics of two teenage Russian boys during the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940’s. After the boys are caught breaking the law and thrown in prison, they are given reprieve by a local military commander. Find a dozen eggs in 5 days and their lives will be spared.

From then on, both hilarity and catastrophe ensue. It’s full of (mis)adventure, humor, and even has some deep reflections on what it means to be alive. There were parts where I laughed out loud and other parts that nearly brought a tear to my eye.

For anyone who’s a fan of historical fiction, especially when set in World War II, I highly recommend this book. It’s great. And at 260 pages, you can get through it really quick.

Book Review: Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another Mary Roach classic. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal takes us through the body’s digestive tract. Like many books by Mary Roach, it’s sometimes gross, often hilarious, and always informative. Bonus points for beginning the story with the smell of beer and wine right here in Oakland at Beer Revolution.

She does a great job sharing relevant stories and interesting facts about each part of our digestive tract, among them:

* How smell influences what we taste
* Why we prefer crispy foods
* The history of scientific research into digestion through “fistulated holes”
* Fiber: the munchies, the myth, and the legend
* Did Elvis die from being constipated
* And lots and lots of stories related to the science of studying poo

Needless to say, this isn’t a book you want to read while eating lunch. But it did elicit a number of laughs and giggles from me while I took public transit to and from work each day. Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable and informative read. If you’ve enjoyed anything from Mary Roach before, I’d highly recommend this as well.

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Book Review: Zoo

Zoo
Zoo by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Let me start off by saying that the premise of “Zoo” sounds like a very promising story. It’s a techno-thriller set in the present day and explores a mystery illness suddenly spreading around the world that is causing all sorts of mammals to inexplicably attack humans on sight (and smell). From domesticated pets to wild animals, we’ve suddenly become nature’s favorite snack.

In reality, this book should probably be named, “50 Shades of Prey.” The writing style leaves quite a bit to be desired. The story alternates between poorly written third person narratives describing various animals attacking humans and tortuous first-person accounts from a “scientist” named Oz — an arrogant manic drop-out with ADHD from Colombia University who you would probably find calling into Art Bell’s Coast to Coast each week. Oh, he also has an insane chimpanzee for a pet.

Anyway, the story opens with two lions from the LA Zoo attacking their keeper (whom they’ve been familiar with for years) and escaping into the urban jungle known as Los Angeles and generally wrecking some major havoc.

From there, we meet Oz, a self-proclaimed pioneer of a little-known theory called HAC — human-animal conflict. For roughly the last 10 or so years, he’s been tracking every instance of animal attacks on humans and is the only one who notices a disturbing trend: they’ve been increasing exponentially!

It probably doesn’t help that his main / preferred companion is a chimp and he is a chronic homebody. (Interestingly enough, he still manages to have a girlfriend or two in the book.) Coupled with his caustic attitude toward other scientists who looked down upon him (and the constant snarky quips and comments he shares throughout the book), I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would have a hard time believing him.

Anyway, all of this leads to an interesting thought experiment: What happens when rats, bats, dogs, and dolphins (all lead by a single chimpanzee) take over the world and potentially lead to the fall of human civilization as we know it, while our only savior is a crazy introvert who knew this was going to happen all along?

Let’s just say that I really wanted to like this book. The concept had a lot of potential. Sadly, I found myself wanting to get through this book just so I could get done with it and move onto the next thing on my reading list. The parts describing the animal attacks tried to emulate a Stephen King horror novel while the first-person accounts with Oz were just downright torture to read.

Fortunately for me (and probably for you too), it’s a relatively mindless and quick read. I struggled with whether to give this two stars or three stars. The entire story started to unravel and grow more ridiculous toward the end (kind of like this review). Ultimately, I decided to give it 2 stars.

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Book Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Part sci-fi, part fantasy, and part adventure, Ready Player One is a fun read for anyone who is nerdy, plays video games, and grew up in the 80’s (and loved it). Some parts simply feel as if you’re watching someone else play a video game (we know how boring that can be), but others are action packed and deep enough to make you think. Read on for the rest of the review!

Ready Player One is the first book written by Ernest Cline. Published in 2011, it takes a look at an American dystopia in the near future (the story takes place around 2040). It’s a strange America – an America where abject poverty is prevalent on every street corner, but everyone still has access to the Internet.

More specifically, they have access to a virtual world called OASIS, which has replaced the Internet. OASIS is a fusion of Second Life, The Matrix, Avatar, World of Warcraft, Tron, and a number of other video games and movies. It’s a world where people go to escape the tedium and toil of everyday life, buy goods (both real and virtual), meet new people, and even learn and study.

The story follows our hero, Wade Watts, an overweight, nerdy kid only 18-years of age and living inside a slum née trailer park in Oklahoma City. Socially awkward, he’s extraordinarily gifted with computers and feels most comfortable inside OASIS.

Ready Player One is told from Wade’s point of view. He begins the story by recounting where he was when he found out that James Halliday, the creator of OASIS, had passed away. Halliday was both reclusive and eccentric, and spent nearly his entire life creating, maintaining, and adding to OASIS. One can’t help but think of Steve Wozniak when Wade describes Halliday’s mannerisms. (We later find that Halliday had a ruthless and smart business partner throughout his life – it’s almost an interesting parable for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.)

Halliday had no heirs for his massive fortune. Instead, he only left behind video instructions detailing what should be done with estate. All one had to do to inherit his riches was to find and complete a series of Easter Eggs that he had hidden throughout Oasis. That was it!

Wade continues the story, explaining that this was no easy task. Halliday had left behind no clues about where his Easter Eggs may have been hidden among the tens of thousands of worlds inside OASIS.

Wade, and the thousands of others hoping to solve Halliday’s puzzle, were known as “Gunters” (a portmanteau of “egg hunters”). They began to focus on every aspect of Halliday’s life, particularly the 1980’s – a period that Halliday was especially obsessed with during his life. From here, the book descends into a virtual tour of pop culture from the 80’s. Quotes from Monty Python, songs by Rush, and arcade games such as Pacman, Tempest, and more. For anyone reading who both grew up during the 80’s and considered themselves well versed in its culture and history, the book will provide a ton of enjoyment.

Along the way, Wade and his friends will encounter rival Gunters and evil corporations bent on gaining control of Halliday’s fortune (as well as control of OASIS). Some parts are cheesy (e.g., some of the fights and battles) and others are rather thought provoking (e.g., when Wade confesses that he’s falling in love with an avatar/player that he’s never met in person – it reminded me of the movie Catfish).

Many of the themes in the book – such as those related to virtual goods, the digital economy, and even net neutrality – are especially relevant to today’s connected world. While I don’t particularly agree with the author’s vision of the future, I definitely appreciate many of the underlying themes.

Overall, I found this book to be fairly enjoyable. Some parts were slow and longer than necessary, but Wade was always a class act throughout the story. So, do nice guys really finish last? Find out! 🙂

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Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Orphan Master’s Son follows the life of Pak Jun Do, a young boy who lives in a North Korean orphanage with his father, the Orphan Master.

What ultimately transpires is a pretty gripping tale following the life of Jun Do as he grows up and lives life under the oppressive totalarian regime of Kim Jong Il. He ultimately joins to military and is assigned to tunnel duty — building tunnels for infiltration into South Korea. One day, he is visited by an officer and assigned a new task that will ultimately change his life, forever.

Some of my favorite chapters are written in an entertaining and light hearted manner — providing well timed, nice (almost comic) relief from some of the heavier parts of the book. They make you feel as if you’re listening to the latest daily propaganda dispatch from a nearby loudspeaker: “CITIZENS! Today is the Dear Leader’s birthday! Help us celebrate by DOUBLING your output quotas! Remember, it’s the only way to prevent a sneak attack by those imperialist aggressors!”

I don’t want to spoil much more of the story. There are twists and turns in the plot that will cause your jaw to drop. There are other parts that will potentially cause you to tear up. You really do feel as if someone peeled back a curtain, and you’re getting a genuine look inside North Korea.

This is a great book for any book club, as it has amazing potential for discussing fate versus free will, loyalty, love, fidelity, and courage. I often found myself laying awake at night, thinking about some of these central themes in the book.

My ultimate rating is 5 / 5 stars — I debated giving it 4 as I read along, but I think some of the deeper themes of the book, and the fact that it was so thought provoking, makes me belive it’s easily worth all 5 stars.

Forgive me for my hyperbole, but this was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read since The Kite Runner. I highly recommend it!

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Book Review: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I heard that Walter Isaacson was doing the Steve Jobs biography, I was quite excited about the potential. I loved his biographies on Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin (and his Henry Kissinger bio has been highly recommended). Needless to say, it was an instant pre-order.

The biography takes a look at the various parts of Steve’s life, from his upbringing as an adopted child, to his care free lifestyle and travels through India, to starting a company, getting kicked out, and then ultimately coming back.

Overall, the book was an interesting read and had some fascinating nuggets of information. But I found myself disappointed as I read further and further into the book. Isaacson had unprecedented access to Steve Jobs. I was really hoping that he could get inside his head, pick him apart, and come up with what made him tick, his thought processes, etc.

Unfortunately, he really didn’t. What we’re instead left with is a superficial look at Steve’s life in the first half of the book, and a look at Apple’s various product launches in the second half of the book. As I write this, news comes out today that Isaacson is planning an addendum to the Jobs biography in the future — adding more information and filling in some gaps.

Overall, the book was still an interesting read, and I think anyone who is a fan of technology will find it enjoyable. I just wish it was more fulfilling.

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