Books Of 2016

Top Picks:

The Rise of the Robots – Martin Fordrise-of-the-robotsIf you have a strong inclination towards despair over the future, this book is a pass. Rise of the Robots reinforces, validates, and elaborates on prior notions (see: The great hollowing out) but expresses them far better.

The main point: Technology will replace a large fraction of the US labor force and lead to permanent structural unemployment.

Yes, Technology is a broad term. Which is why Ford goes into great detail explaining how forces such as advanced robotics, machine learning and cloud computing will work together to automate most tasks performed by human labor. This will ultimately render a vast majority of global workers obsolete.

I choose to use “workers” here intentionally, as capital owners, i.e. those pushing for a larger share of profits to be plowed back into capital investment, will continue to reap the benefits of reduced costs – costs associated with human “nuisances” such as pensions, injury compensation, maternity leave, workplace complaints, litigation, etc.

Machines however, do not consume. The author highlights that growth in developed economies is driven by consumption and widespread losses in income due to unemployment will deprive economies of the spending they need to sustain an upward trajectory.

What I liked about the book: Ford does a good job addressing the wave of automation on an industry-by-industry basis. He sequences the discussion around a US Bureau of Labor Statistics report which ranked the industries with the greatest employment prospects over the next decade. In each chapter, he makes convincing arguments as to why such prospects are overblown.

Two main turn-offs:

(1) This book is short on potential solutions – limiting the policy discussion to one around a “universal basic income.” Such a policy is meant to replace the temporary unemployment programs that are so often over-utilized and under-funded. Yet some of Ford’s supporting arguments for a wider social safety net fly directly in the face of the book’s main thrust.

For instance, he notes that a guaranteed basic income would enable increased innovation by allowing would-be entrepreneurs to take greater risks. However, Ford spent the previous 8 chapters explaining how even creativity and innovation can be automated through advances in deep learning. If a machine can write a symphony, a full news article, or create abstract art – what stops it from drafting a business plan or developing a discounted cash flow model?

(2) Ford spends less time considering other basic questions. How much automation is too much automation? Can capital owners reign in advances for the sake of humanity? Are we expecting too much, too soon – particularly given the very real human behavior around economic rent-seeking?

As to the last question above. Humans will work to protect their jobs. Often this comes in the form of reluctant disclosure, over-complication of workflows or other active resistance to “stream-lining.” Ford notes that “if your job can be predictable, it can be automated.” I would argue that humans are really good at making things needlessly complicated – if only to validate their own existence in the labor force.

Furthermore, automation is expensive. Industries with more fragmentation – i.e. fewer players of scale, more smaller businesses, will lack the financial resources to install and maintain certain technologies. Recently, the WSJ published an article about how a steadily declining flow of Mexican immigrants has halted growth in small businesses across hospitality, construction and agricultural industries. These businesses have shorter term risks to think about. When you are worried about keeping the lights on, or covering a line of credit – you don’t have the luxury of lofty innovation goals.

In short, I believe Ford when he says the Robots are coming. i just think they will take a bit longer than he would like.

maladies-2Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri: People dislike Lahiri’s stories for the same reasons they dislike Norman Rockwell paintings; each play with our feelings of nostalgia, our longing for contentment in simple scenes. We smile, but only for an instant. Our skeptical halves cut in and chide the romantics. Such images are just pushing a pleasure button, pushing us to recapture feelings from a moment that never existed so perfectly. You’re eating bullshit.

Most critique Interpreter of Maladies for a somewhat superficial brush of immigrant lives in America or Bengali traditions back home. To be fair, Lahiri considers herself an American, once stating “I wasn’t born here, but I might as well have been.” She does not explore adverse racism, only subtle feelings of isolation. Perhaps that is all, god-willing, she has experienced.

Regardless of what she witnessed firsthand, the writer has no obligation to delve into certain waters or wade into others. She can swim wherever she sees fit.

And the waters that Lahiri plumbs are those of universal human emotions. Emotions associated with a failed marriage, with the loss of a child, with infidelity and loneliness. And I think she does a fine job in this regard. Two wonderful examples are:

Sexy: In my view, the best story in this anthology. Told through the eyes of a young mistress, she charts the emotions associated with initial trysts (day-dates at the museum, sex in public places, romantic dinners) through the subsequent decline of passion (her lover comes to the apartment in sweat-pants, grunts through sex with no eye contact). With subtle sensitivity, Lahiri shows us how lazy it is to label someone as a “harlot” and discard any feeling of genuine love they may feel towards an out-of-reach partner.

A Temporary Matter: A young marriage at a crossroads, due to the loss of a child. In one wintry week, the local electricity company alerts the neighborhood of scheduled outages – one hour, each night. In the dark, the couple agrees to share one secret per evening, attempting to mend wounds caused by years of silence.

There are some throw-away stories, but all-in-all a fine collection. I don’t care if the mode of writing beats an Oprah-Reading-List shaped drum. If this series does nothing, but warm the heart, even in a cliché way, then so be it. Not everything has to be raw, brutal or deranged. Sometimes life is just as soft as the artist makes it out to be.

Other (not top picks) Fiction:

satin-island-2Satin Island – Tom McCarthy: If it were a novel, it would be called the Over-Examined Life. Despite the words “novel” on the cover, however, this is anything but. It is a collection of field notes. Dossiers from a brilliant and emotionless anthropologist named U.

U gained modest levels of fame for his doctoral thesis detailing the Rave Culture in London during the 1990’s. He also caught the eye of Peyman, the CEO of a large, ubiquitous consulting firm, working for multinational companies and governments alike. Peyman hires U.

So what does the corporate flavor of anthropology entail? Here is the narrator:“It’s about identifying and probing granular, mechanical behaviors, extrapolating from a sample batch of these a set of blueprints which, taken as a whole, and cross mapped onto the findings of more “objective” or empirical studies (quantitative analysis, econometric modeling and the like), lay bare some kind of inner social logic, which can be harnessed, put to use.”

By “put to use” he means sold to companies as slick marketing campaigns, consumer studies, etc. No different from old sooth-sayers cutting open the stomach’s of fish and trying to glean some type of profound meaning for the rapt tribe that surrounds him.

While the book may lack the emotional sting of a great novel, the passages where McCarthy links ancestral ritual to modern day routines have lasting impact. It also produces some of best fodder for Wikipedia worm holes. See Cargo Cult.

Outside of everyday musings, U is hired to write The Great Report – an impossible task, aimed at defining our time through any and all mediums, segmenting and chronicling all of human existence in its current day. Our era.

As you can guess, no great report gets written. No era is defined. For a narrator that is all head and no heart, the realization that a life over-examined is a waste, becomes painfully honest when, in the final chapters, we hear a bizarre story from U’s love interest, Maddie.

I won’t get into too much detail – Maddie undergoes extreme physical and emotional trauma at some point in her past. The behavior of her aggressors defies all explanation, not for its savagery (although it is, indeed, savage) but for the baffling intricacy and bizarre coordination of torture. This is a ritual U cannot explain.

The unsettling nature of Madison’s story not only adds depth to her character but makes a mockery of U’s attempt to deliver a report that is the first and last word of an era. If he was in doubt about his Project before this moment, Madison hammers in the final nails.

After reading myriad reviews, there seems to be three, related views on the final chapters, and ultimately the point McCarthy is trying to make.

The over-examined life is meaningless because:

(1) Knowledge alone—as U.’s great humanist hero, Lévi-Strauss, would have reminded him—is not enough. There is also the question of ethics, of human interaction and community, of the meaning generated not only from a performance of knowledge but from the act of knowing another. Of this kind of knowledge, U. has very little – David Marcus of the New Republic

(2) We are already dead, yet we continue to document to infinitude the activities of humans past and present, including the oil spills and the waste dumps, one of which is Satin Island, formerly Staten Island, now covered over with golf courses and walkways and greeting visitors to the United States in the same general vicinity as the Statue of Liberty.

You (that is, U) don’t have “to go to Staten Island–actually go there–[that] would be profoundly meaningless….Not to go there was, of course, profoundly meaningless as well…the explosion’s already taking place—it’s always been taking place. You just didn’t notice…” – Trish – The Bowed Bookshelf

(3) “The world narrative belongs to terrorists now more than novelists.’ said Don DeLilo. McCarthy claims to have updated the word ‘terrorists’ with the idea of ‘the network’. In other words, he’s asserting that the role of the novelist has been usurped by nebulous, unaccountable powers. History is being recorded and organized according to algorithms – T Jackson Richards – Goodreads

Whatever reason you select, the directive seems clear to me. GET OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD. Show love, show sympathy, the examined life is a meaningless existence, only because life defies meaning.

sharp-objectsSharp Objects – Gillian Flynn: Thrifty sentence structure and a compelling plot push you through this book very quickly.

Flynn has a gift for pacing, gradually revealing more dark details about her characters and steadily stoking feelings of unease for the reader. I often asked myself if Wind Gap citizens could get any more deranged. And the answer was always yes.

But in this question, also lies the book’s biggest flaw: an entire town of people cannot be so fucked up. The writer’s characters are often caricatures – openly barbaric and unbelievably unstable . There is little balance painted into anyone but the protagonist.

Should we fault the book for it? Probably not. After all, this is a fictional thriller, not a literary character study. And Flynn’s treatment of the main character, Camille, is much more nuanced.

This, in my opinion, is the author’s most valuable attribute: the ability to draw the reader in, to like, to care for, and ultimately to understand, an unhinged protagonist. Flynn gets you there with detail, with good inner monologue, with a very consistent first person narrative.The book is a worth a read. A guilty pleasure, given dark the subject matter.

Complaint 2.PNGPortnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth: This book was timely for 1969, but any insights into the male psyche have since been fleshed out and plumbed in greater detail.

Exasperating initial chapters. Pages without paragraphs; a whiney reflection on a childhood rife with imagined emasculation and affronts by an overbearing Jewish mother. Roth does so intentionally. He wants to send up our narrator as a fool, unreliable in his accounts of subsequent years. It works, but you just end up hating him. His life wasn’t that bad, yet he complains endlessly.

As Portnoy grows, and his relationship focus changes from mother to girlfriend, an actual story takes hold. We see a man trying to explore what it is like to be bad – that is, acquisitive and carnal – when one is essentially good – that is, restrained by cultural values and moral upbringing.

The narrator’s attempts to escape this victimized persona leads to increasingly violent and dominating romantic relationships. Such escalation culminates in the attempted rape of an Israeli female, which the main character eventually gives up on.

Roth’s blithe treatment of rape and more subtle sexual coercion should be criticized and the book’s focus on his sexual addiction was too narrow.

Yes, the urge to dominate resonates with some portion of the male psyche, yet this urge need not manifest itself sexually and solely towards women. The fact that Alexander Portnoy’s psychological misgivings strictly play out in this manner is a bit unrealistic and at the very least – boring.

In short, why do I care whether some middle-class, self-centered prick achieves liberation from a childhood that wasn’t even that bad? I kind of just wanted him to shut the fuck up.

Other Non-Fiction:

economics-of-inequalityThe Economics of Inequality – Thomas Piketty: I want to give this a longer review later, potentially coupling it with some themes from other economics-oriented titles.

For now, I will say this is a meticulously researched piece. A sort of supplement to Piketty’s monumental Capital which drew so much attention in 2014. If you are reluctant to delve into that density, The Economics of Inequality is a slim starter piece – outlining Piketty’s core arguments on (1) what we should consider to be “inequality” (e.g. among labor, between labor and capital owners, or both?) (2) Has it been increasing?  (3) Is rising inequality detrimental to economic growth and (4) if 2, and 3 are correct, how income can be redistributed in an efficient and politically acceptable manner?

I appreciate the simple observation he makes early on: Although the profit share of income is impressively constant over the long run, it does vary over the short run, and the long-run can seem very long indeed to the individuals adversely affected by short run deviations.

He takes one time frame (1979 – 1995) and splits it into two sections 1970 – 1982 and 1983 – 1995. Wage share of value added (i.e. total GDP growth) increases dramatically  from 1970 – 1982, coinciding with a period of heightened social movements and marked increases in minimum wage. Profit share decreased when social militancy enabled workers to win important concessions on wages and it increased from 1983 onwards when constraints were imposed on wage growth. Yet the increased profit share did not lead to the promised creation of jobs.

To be sure, substantial variations over a 25 year time period do not change the fact that, over 50 to 100 years, wage’s share of value added has been fixed at roughly 2/3rds. Yet people don’t think in 50 – 100 year stretches. For the worker’s in that 25 year time frame – all they know is that the standard of living increased sharply from 1968 to 1982 and then stagnated from 1983 to 1995, while output continued to grow. They associate that standard of living increase with a direct redistribution of income from capital to labor. The view that true improvement in the standard of living can only come from growth and not from redistribution is valid only in the long-run, and politics, in which workers have a legitimate interest, operates on a very different time scale

poland

Poland – James A. Michener: “A Pole is a man born with a sword in one hand and a brick in the other. When the fighting is over, he rebuilds.” 

I would only recommend James Michener novels to those with an intense interest in its subject matter. My interest for Poland was born out of heritage and travel – I am of Polish descent and had to travel to the country for work several times in 2016.

When Michener wrote Poland, it was one of the most prosperous nations in the Warsaw Pact, and was facing the least of the Soviet repressions, the memory of the Nazi terror in Poland was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and with Karol Wojtyla just elected to the Papacy in Rome, he began his historical research.

He represents Poland as a nation ahead of its time. At the end of the eighteenth century she was busy viciously attempting to adopt sorts of reforms that would allow a gentle rise of a middle class, a pacified peasantry, but ultimately to the emasculation of the nobility. Historically – this nobility had shifting alignments with more powerful neighbors – Russia, Prussia and Austria. This alignment led to aristocratic influence that was adverse to the benefit of a majority of Polish citizens. I will leave Michener to explain the outcome:

“There was no justification for this terrible rape of a free land. Such nations as Switzerland had long been encouraged to exist as buffers between larger powers, and there was no reason why Poland should have been denied this privilege, except that she had committed two fatal errors: she had evolved no way to defend herself with a stable government, regular taxation and a dependable army; and in her weakness she had endeavored to initiate freedoms which threatened the autocracies which surrounded her.

Had her neighbors been England, France and America instead of Russia, Prussia and Austria, she would surely have been permitted to exist, for the innovations she was proposing were merely extensions of what that first trio had already accepted. To be both weak and daring is for a nation an impossibility.” 

distressed-debtStephen G. Moyer – Distressed Debt Analysis: By far, the best introduction to distressed investing I have come across. It should be on the syllabus of any 200 or 300 level finance class or supplemental reading for anyone pursuing a series of financial designations. I likened it to what Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was for most high school history classes. It makes seemingly boring topics digestible and (dare I say) fun. It is an ongoing reference for those that read about Chapter 11 filings in the news, but might not be equipped to understand the finer details of the restructuring process.

Other Graphic Novels & Comics

rebornMark Millar and Greg Capullo – Reborn: All of the people that have passed away before you are waiting in another world. This world isn’t heaven, because the awful people come to. How you conduct yourself in life affects how you will be “reborn”

The story follows Bonnie Black, an 80-year-old woman who is afraid to die, but then when she passes she’s shocked to find she has been reborn as a 25-year-old woman with a sword in her hand and gun on her hip” and embarks on an adventure as she searches for her husband who is missing from her new world, although he died 13 years ago.

First issues (the series is still being created – only two issues have been released at the time of this writing) are ABSOLUTELY worth a read. I loved it. From the creator of Kick Ass and The Kingsmen.

 

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